#30: centering the news consumer instead of the media
+ a tool for checking our anger at "the mainstream media"
First, a big hello+welcome to new subscribers who’ve joined in the last week, thanks to the guest post I had the opportunity to write for Tiny Driver, and the subsequent feature of my care-driven news consumption checklist in last week’s Girls Night In newsletter (see: “ways to take care” @ the end)!
Today I want to tackle something that’s a core premise of the book I’m writing: centering the news consumer.
We actually have a prompt today (see below if you want to skip ahead) but first, our usual walk through some useful reading.
Let’s start with this quote from Carla Murphy’s Multiple Mainstreams in Dissent Magazine that I have not been able to stop thinking about for weeks:
It never made sense to me to believe that a shooting in a New York City outer borough has gotten sunlight because a white guy in Greenwich, Connecticut, read about it in an issue of the New York Times. What does informing him have to do with journalism fulfilling its public service for the people living in that outer borough? Where is their trusted mainstream for surfacing debate, sifting truth from misinformation, and building consensus?
That sentence captures the entire reason I became obsessed with the question of why people consume news. As an immigrant kid in a white town trying to read the New York Times because that’s what I thought would give me a seat at The Table, I could never relate to what I was reading. It confused the hell out of me. So much so that I went to journalism school to try to understand how the machine worked, even though I knew I didn’t want to work in the “mainstream media” after graduation.
Which brings us to our first question.
What is the mainstream media?
There’s a lot of research happening in the media and communications world that looks at trust, business models, misinformation, platforms and more. And many industry publications, like Nieman Lab and the Columbia Journalism Review monitor the press to examine things like what the Pfizer-approval story says about our media ecosystem or how Politico is being sold for more than $1 billion. But most people don’t read that stuff.
Most of the time, when America talks about “the mainstream media” — what are we actually talking about?
Consider this kind of extreme (but funny) opening anecdote from CJR’s Inside the Lines about Nick Bacon, a video producer in Chicago who thought it would funny/good for business to name his company Mainstream Media LLC (he doesn’t work in news):
Bacon’s strategy paid off; during the primaries in 2016 and 2020, with Trump tearing into the mainstream media on the campaign trail, people called, emailed, and tweeted at the business every week. Last year, a pair from South Carolina phoned him repeatedly for an hour. “They legitimately thought I was the mainstream media Donald Trump was talking about,” Bacon said. He tried to explain what his business actually was; after an extended back-and-forth, they asked him to convey their anti-media message—which Bacon described as “impotent rage”—to the rest of us.
The rest of the piece is a brief, useful history of how the mainstream media came to be.
But let’s set aside the industry for a moment and talk about the anger part.
What is effective anger?
There are many reasons we might feel angry at “the media” — maybe we’ve felt unseen or unheard in the stories we’ve been exposed to. Maybe our values have been challenged. Maybe we live in a news desert and there is no media covering our communities. Maybe we are all too aware of how elitist the media system is. The list goes on.
Recently, I came across a fascinating idea in a book called The Dance of Anger, which was first written by psychologist Harriet Lerner in 1985 (and is a little too gendered for my taste… but stay with me here because it’s a powerful idea).
Dr. Lerner explains that most of us are ineffective at using anger to clarify and fulfill our needs. Instead, we are usually socialized to fear anger, deny it, displace it onto inappropriate targets, or turn it toward ourselves. The book is a guide on how to use your anger in the service of your own growth.
We may be putting our anger energy into trying to change or control a person who does not want to change, rather than putting that same energy into getting clear about our own position or choices… Managing anger effectively goes hand in hand with developing a clearer “I” and becoming a better expert on the self.
What I loved about this idea is that it centers the person experiencing anger and encourages them to prioritize themselves rather than trying to change the people around them, which is impossible.
Now, in no way do I think we don’t have major work to do to build a more equitable, just and well-resourced media system, but I also know that there are too many competing interests at play to make that realistic any time soon, at least at scale.
So why not use our anger (and other emotions) to get more clear on what we want?
Doing so as individuals requires us to pause and reflect more often.
Doing so collectively requires having smarter, deeper conversations about the media ecosystem that center the news consumer instead of the media.
We can learn so much about ourselves and each other that way. That’s why I pitched the book as Taking Back the News, and why I believe that if we can get better in touch with why we consume and what we feel is missing or broken, we not only can make better choices but shift demand intelligently.
Centering the news consumer instead of the media
That said, I was delighted to see this new study in the journal New Media & Society — summarized brilliantly in the below issue of RQ1 (a Substack I highly recommend which summarizes the latest news/journo research studies).
The study involved interviews with 488 news consumers in Argentina, Finland, Israel, Japan, and the United States to understand how and why people still get print newspapers in an era dominated by social media. Much of it turned out to be due to patterns of everyday life (for example: encountering news in the course of doing other non-news things, like going to a cafe, visiting family, or needing to burn paper for a fire). But the implications were most interesting.
Coddington and Lewis summarize it well:
In much of communication research (and, we would add, much of the industry conversation about the transformation of news), a lot of emphasis is placed on “media-centric” factors such as content and technology — for example, on how people respond to different types of information, or on how various tools and platforms might influence the experiences people have and the preferences they express about media use. But, as the authors argue based on their extensive set of interviews, a “media-centric” focus is missing the point of how media are actually experienced by people in the day to day — and by recognizing that, by “de-centering” the media from our analysis, those who study journalism and communication can better appreciate exactly how media processes and everyday life are interwoven.
Thus, the study’s analyses was organized along three dimensions that stood out from the interviews: access, sociality, and ritualization.
If you’ve been reading Time Spent for a while, you can imagine how validating this framing was for me, because this entire project is a look at the needs-driven reasons we encounter news and the bodily + community cues that can help us begin to renegotiate our relationship with consumption. In other words, how news consumers can take back the news.
I have a lot more to say on this subject, but I’ll spare your inbox and save it for next week in a Part 2 on this topic.
In the meantime, I encourage you to observe when you’re getting angry at the news and what that anger might be telling you. The more specific the better. Here’s a fill in the blank if you want a quick exercise:
The last time I felt angry at “the media” was when: I saw an article about hospitalization rates in Texas going up alongside opinion pieces judging anti-maskers.
I think it was because: it felt heart-breaking but also difficult to understand.
The need I wish could be better fulfilled is: to have access to more nuance, especially in order to understand how more Texans feel. All I’m getting is generalizations and anger.
If you’d like to share an example, leave it in the comments or send me a note + I may share in the next letter.
And once again, welcome to the new subscribers and please don’t hesitate to reply to this email if you’d like to share thoughts or request topics for me to cover!