Thursday, November 1, 2007

What are we talking about?

A while back I blogged about Adoption of Innovation research, and I’ve also talked about how blogs might generously be described to have a symbiotic relationship with conventional media, and uncharitably be described as vampiric.

Back in the day when I studied this stuff, one of the few theories that seemed to have merit was Agenda Setting theory. The theory is oft summarized with the axiom “the media may not tell people what to think, but they do tell people what to think about.” The theory goes that media outlets focus on an agenda of items that are considered newsworthy – these can be enduring news values, or specific news events. For example, proximity is an enduring news value – the closer the ‘news” is to the reader, the more newsworthy it becomes (hence, as happened with The New York Times some years back, a front page story might describe a local car crash where a dozen people died, while buried on page three is a squib about a train wreck in India with over 300 casualties). A specific news ‘event’ might be immigration, or avian flu, or the lead in children’s toys, to name a few of the moment.

There have been mountains of research to show that there is a causal relationship between people’s agendas and what the media is highlighting. This is one reason why politicians are always trying to create an agenda that favors their views or corners their competitors.

Agenda Setting works when you have a fairly monolithic media, with a few controlling interests commanding considerable public reach: This was the case pre-Internet, but has rapidly eroded. Today, most people get their news from many sources, not just their local paper. Today we have blogs.

Does this change anything? Probably, and possibly not for the better. reported that when the mainstream media focused on Iraq and immigration, the alternative media focused on iPhones and game consuls. Blogs do the same thing, as I noted in a past post where nerd-level subjects like Web 2.0 outdo mainstream discussions of President Bush.

Tobias Escher at the OII is doing research in this area, as has Kaye Sweetser and colleagues: Early days, but blogs seems to have some influence on overall news agendas. The effect seems to be indirect – again, an amplification process, rather than establishing agendas.

Blogs exist in subcultures – narrow, divisive, tribal, and often contumacious. They accentuate some abiding news values and usually have a very narrow agenda of interest. In this sense, blogs represent the opposite of mass media – the media of division.

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