When you’re in the news

Being the subject of news coverage can be both exciting and disturbing.

Have you ever been in the news? If you’re a politician, sports star or celebrity, of course you have, but for others it can be a rare experience. What does it feel like?

            There is a vast amount of writing and research about the news. However, most of the research is from the point of view of either journalists or audiences. Surprisingly, few have bothered to interview so-called “ordinary people” appearing in the news. Ruth Palmer, in her new book Becoming the news: how ordinary people respond to the media spotlight,has addressed this omission. Her findings are fascinating.

            My own experience is not typical. For decades I have regularly spoken with journalists, and I’ve written quite a few articles and letters to the editor published in newspapers. However, I do remember one of the first times I was on television. A television crew came to a friend’s house and I was interviewed on camera for half an hour. When the programme was broadcast, less than half a minute of the interview was used. That was when I concluded that television is the most manipulative of the mass media.

            Palmer is now a professor of communications at IE University in Spain. In doing her PhD at Columbia University, she set out to study the experiences of people in the US who had been in news stories, usually without any initiative on their part, and this research became the basis for Becoming the News.

After the famous “miracle on the Hudson,” when a pilot landed a damaged passenger plane on the Hudson River with no loss of life, journalists sought the views of survivors. Palmer interviewed one of them, “Albert” (a pseudonym). Also among the 83 people she interviewed in 2009-2011 were “Deanne,” who witnessed an attempted suicide and was approached for comment, and “Alegra,” who miscarried due to a rare syndrome and agreed to speak to the media about it.

Miracle on the Hudson

            There were a variety of reasons why Palmer’s interviewees had encounters with the media. What the interviewees had in common was the novel experience of having their words or images conveyed to a wide public in a story written by someone else — a journalist.

“Subjects imagined that those large audiences not only saw the coverage but also believed it. Based on their subsequent interactions with people who had seen them in the news, this usually proved to be true. This is the final factor that defines news subjecthood: being represented by a journalist in a mainstream news product means being represented in a product that makes authoritative truth claims.” (p. 8)

The interview

In many cases, people make a voluntary choice to be in the news. A journalist rings and asks for comments on an issue. It’s possible to say no, but many subjects agree, for a variety of reasons. Some want to inform the public about an issue, like Alegra who wanted to warn other mothers. Some seek publicity for their business or cause.

            Some people have just experienced something dramatic, like a plane crash or being shot in the street. Palmer calls the event leading to journalists being interested a “trigger.” If you’ve just been collateral damage in a shooting incident, or witnessed someone trying to kill themselves, you could be traumatised. It’s not an ideal time to be talking to a journalist, but even so many people agree: they are witnesses and are willing to give their point of view.

            Journalists are hardly neutral in this process. They want a story. They learn how to encourage subjects to agree to comment and how to get them talking. In this sort of encounter, the journalist is highly skilled and experienced whereas the subject is unprepared and sometimes traumatised. Some journalists exploit people’s natural inclination to respond to questions.

            In general, people agree to be interviewed if they think they will benefit more than they will be harmed. Some don’t want their stories told, especially if they have something to hide.

            In my own experience, most journalists are straightforward in their dealings and competent in doing their jobs. For example, they ring me to comment about whistleblowing or plagiarism or some other topic about which I’ve written. My situation is different from that of the “ordinary people” Palmer writes about; I’ve never been approached after witnessing a crime or being in an accident.

The story

Palmer’s findings about the accuracy of stories are especially interesting. First consider the point of view of journalists and editors: they put a premium on factual accuracy. Some high-prestige media, like the New York Times, employ fact-checkers to ensure accuracy in stories.

            However, Palmer found that most subjects were not too worried about factual errors, such as giving the wrong street or even misspelling their names. They were far more disturbed by the general impression given by the story, especially when it was different from what, based on an interview, they had anticipated.

            For an ordinary person to be featured in the news means being singled out as special: in most cases, it adds to the person’s status. This occurs despite the news media having a low reputation generally. Many subjects were thrilled by the stories. They thought the journalists had done a good job, and had given them greater visibility than they could have achieved otherwise.

            For subjects who wanted to promote a business or a cause, media coverage provided more effective advertising and legitimation than alternatives. Stories were especially credible because they were written by someone else, a journalist.

            Subjects reported that when family members and friends saw their name in the newspaper, many of them bought copies and sent congratulations. In quite a few cases, this response seemed independent of what the story said. Being in the news was enough to be seen as an accomplishment.

            For a small minority, though, news coverage was a disaster. This was mainly when the story was about something disreputable, such as a crime, or simply cast them in a bad light. A university student was quoted out of context in a way that made her look bad, and as a result received abusive comments from peers and strangers alike.

            Many subjects found it strange, indeed unnerving, to see how they were portrayed in the news. It is difficult enough for most people to appreciate how others see them. News coverage provides one avenue.

            The strangeness arises from a contrast of perspectives. Subjects knew about their own lives, of course. Then a sliver of their life is interpreted by someone else, a journalist, and presented to the world, so readers would assume that that is what they are like. Subjects could examine the coverage and contrast it with their own self-perception. Added to this was the knowledge that many other people, people who didn’t know them otherwise, were forming their opinions of them based on this particular portrayal.

            With time and experience, people can get used to media coverage of themselves. Palmer’s subjects, though, were newcomers to the experience.

The consequences

Journalists, according to Palmer, evaluate their reporting mainly in terms of accuracy and ethical process. Subjects, while deeming these facets important, were much more concerned with the overall orientation of the coverage and with its impact on audiences. These are aspects given less attention in US media coverage. If a journalist had to worry about the impact of coverage on the life of an interviewee, this could lead to a type of self-censorship.

            Long after journalists have moved on to other stories, subjects may be coping with the impact of being in the news. This is exacerbated by the indefinite online availability of stories. Pre-Internet, media coverage would come and go, with impacts being localised in time and space. With online stories, the coverage can have a long-term impact via search engines.

            One of Palmer’s subjects, “Rich,” had been arrested for having kidnapped a politician’s wife, a story given local media coverage. Later, he was released because he had nothing to do with the kidnapping. However, his exoneration was not newsworthy. His employer believed Rich was innocent but fired him anyway, because clients might find the damaging media stories online. Three years later, Palmer reports, Rich was still unemployed.

            Rich’s disastrous experience with media coverage highlights something relevant to most of Palmer’s subjects: they realised that journalists and editors had far more power than they did. In effect, they were at the mercy of journalists, who could decide how to frame stories, enhancing or damaging their reputations.

            Journalists have a lot of power because their stories can have a wide and long-lasting impact. Furthermore, this power is mostly unaccountable: in the face of unwelcome coverage, the ordinary person has little recourse aside from expensive services to manage online reputations. That journalists have a lot of power does not mesh easily with journalists’ own self-image. They are pressured to produce ever more stories with fewer resources. If anything, they see themselves as courageous champions of the underdog, holding the spotlight to the wrongdoings of powerholders, in the tradition of what is called the fourth estate. With this self-image, it is easy to forget that media coverage can have drastic impacts on subjects of the coverage and that their relationship with those subjects is quite unequal.

Insights about the news

Based on her interviews and other research, Palmer offers a set of lessons for journalists and subjects. To these I would add a few suggestions for consumers of the news, reading about someone who is portrayed as, for example, a hero, an innovator, a victim or a crook.

            It’s useful to remember that media portrayals can, at best, capture only one aspect of a person’s life. So try not to assume that coverage defines a person. This is especially important when the treatment is negative. This is a warning not to engage in social media mobbing without full information.

            In one instance in which I came under attack in a newspaper, there were numerous hostile social media comments. I received a number of hostile emails as well as favourable ones. Most disturbingly, I received just one request for more information. The lesson is that if you see negative coverage about someone and don’t know them, then refrain from joining in an attack; instead, ask them for their side of the story. Or ask someone else who might have independent information.

            If a friend of yours is in the media, you might congratulate them, assuming the coverage is positive. You might also take extra care and talk to them about the issues involved.

            On quite a few occasions, acquaintances have said to me, “I heard you on the radio.” Sometimes, not remembering the interview, I say, “What was I talking about?” Usually they can’t remember. This experience accords with Palmer’s observation that media coverage conveys status independently of the content of the coverage. So when you hear someone you know on the radio, you might like to strike up a conversation about the topic. You might learn something extra. But be careful: they might be sick of the topic and want to talk about anything else.

            There’s an old saying in media studies: “Newspapers don’t tell people what to think; they do tell people what to think about.” Keep this in mind when you respond to media stories and try, at least occasionally, to explore what wasn’t in the news.

Ruth Palmer

            Here’s the “deep story” that Palmer’s subjects felt was true about the mass media:

“The news media is extremely powerful — much, much more powerful than most citizens. Journalists are primarily motivated by profit and status, rather than public service. And yet, outrageously, journalists claim the mantle of public defender. Thus hypocrisy and the potential for abuse define the news media’s relationship to the public.” (p. 214)

Brian Martin