Friday, August 22, 2008

A Theory of Media Digestion.

The streams of information that we, as humans, use to either construct or decode (depending on your ontological point of view) the world around us are undergoing a constant process of filtration which undermines the notion of a single reality to which we all belong. In what follows I offer a description of how different levels of gatekeeping on both the personal and institutional level contribute to the collaborative production of culture through the media.

To begin with, when I use the phrase "streams of information" in the paragraph above, I am referring to a series of heirarchically situated avenues through which we receive our information about the world. These include the Pure Content Stream which represents the broadest level and is defined as the very fabric of external concrete reality. Embedded within this is the Medium Stream which refers to the human engineered conduits through which the Pure Content Stream passes. Beneath this is the Medium Content Stream which refers to the new content that is produced as a result of the interaction between "pure" content and the medium and accounts for for McLuhan's (1964) "medium is the message" concept. Deeper still is the Personal Stream which refers to our indiviudal agency in schematically selecting information and incorporating it into our symbolic universe or "umwelt" (Sebeok; Von Uexkull). Finally, at the most basic level, there is the Empirical Stream of information that accounts for the biological mediation of our sense organs. This has been previously referred to as "first order" mediation ( and calls to attention the fact that our perception is made possible only through cognitive "representations."

“Gatekeeping” is the process through which information is selectively presented through mediation and it occurs at the level of each of these information streams. Only a microcosm of the Pure Content Stream is selected for mediation through the Medium Stream, and this is accomplished through the Personal and Empirical streams of media content producers. For example, when a news van goes out to cover a story, producers have already begun the gatekeeping process by selecting that story and not the infinite variety of other recent or emerging events and occurrences that compose the whole of reality. When they arrive on the scene, producers gatekeep further by selecting positions, camera angles, microphone placements, interviewees, and so on. In other words, their Personal Stream is the whim that guides the selection of events that will ultimately construct the story for the viewing audience. In addition, their choices of what to include and where to direct their attention are constrained further by their ability to perceive and apply information from the Empirical Stream (touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing).

The Medium Content Stream is intended to account for the ways in which the medium itself structures the message (McLuhan, 1964) and is predisposed to transmitting certain types of information. It is in this predisposition that the gatekeeping function of the Medium Content Stream takes place by privileging some types of content over others. For example, you would be unlikely to find a lengthy philosophical debate aired on prime time television and much more likely to find a situation comedy or reality program that is flashy and fast-paced. To be more precise, though, it is not the medium that makes the choice regarding the content it will carry, but producers who have internalized its character and conventions and applied this knowledge to create a program that is most likely to hold the attention of its viewers. Thus producers select elements from the Pure Content Stream and combine them with their knowledge of how the Medium Stream functions to produce a new reality that appears in many ways to represent the Pure Content Stream which is, simultaneously, the physical world that surrounds us and the raw material required for media production.

The Personal Stream shifts the gatekeeping power away from media producers and into the hands of consumers. In the simplest sense, it is the stream that determines what media we choose to expose ourselves to. When we search through television channels or radio stations, surf the web, walk into a movie theater, or choose to purchase one newspaper over another, we are gatekeeping. While the specific factors that contribute to making the choices that compose our Personal Stream are numerous and complex, they may all be attributed to a quest for psychological consistency. That is, we seek out programming similar to what we are already familiar with. To illustrate, most of us have a preferred radio station, format of television program, genre of movie, and so on. When new media is introduced, we choose what requires the least amount of cognitive adjustment on our part.

Describing the Personal Stream in semiotic terms, this quest for consistency is guided by the umwelt, a term used by Jakob von Uexkull and Thomas Sebeok to define the part of the world we choose to inhabit based on our store of previous experiences with it. If we have no previous experience with something and no metaphor by which to assimilate it, comprehension is impossible. Conversely, the more similar something is to our personal universe of experience the more readily its use and meaning is available to us. So it is with media programming as well.

Finally, the Empirical Stream is simply the part of the media program we are able to perceive with our five senses. Some feature films contain over one-hundred tracks of sound mixed together for a scene at different audio levels. It is doubtful that each sound element will be perceived by the filmgoer. Factors such as hearing loss, familiarity with the film, and knowledge of audio production are likely to influence how much of the soundtrack is appreciated. The point is that our senses also play an important part in gatekeeping the world around us if they are incapable of supplying us with the full gamut of environmental information.

Building upon this gatekeeping process as it functions through the streams described above, one should also note that gatekeeping occurs across time on a much broader social and cultural level through the retention and repetition of certain types of information over others and the metatextual commentary that occurs between media programs. To illustrate this point in the clearest terms possible, I will employ the example of news and current events programming on television.

Let us begin with programs that feature “breaking news” as their primary content, such as BBC World News, CNN: Newsroom, and Fox News: The Live Desk. These program formats tend to focus on emerging stories and to periodically review the “stories of the day” as they wait and search out new events to cover. Due to their blanket coverage of emerging news throughout the course of the day, programs of this type herald the stories that evening news programs and analysis shows will discuss around prime time. These shows are a form of institutionalized social “brainstorming” determining which stories “have legs” and will be repeated, analyzed, discussed, and (if compelling enough) used as source material for other genres of television programming and even other forms of media. In short these programs are the first step in determining which stories are used to construct the mythologies that compose the cultural environment.

The next step in this process of collective televised gatekeeping occurs during evening news programs that are featured on the major networks such as CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and ABC World News. Here, the programming takes on a more narrative tone with stories being presented as “packages” as opposed to raw, unfiltered “breaking news.” Such stories or packages are often accompanied by a narration and are assembled into sequences that mimic dramatic production and include techniques such as montage editing and flashback scenes.

Still further along on the food-chain of gatekeeping and cultural production are analysis programs like The O’Reilly Factor and Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Programs like this often comment upon and critique network news programs and other sources of media production. This reflexive approach toward other news outlets along with a more narrow focus on a few big stories supplemented by analysis, interpretation, and discussion move beyond mere presentation of the news and into the realm of positioning it within the wider social discourse that is expressed through ideology.

A more recent genre of news exemplified by Comedy Central programs such as The Jon Stewart Show and The Colbert Report take the analysis program into the realm of the absurd and comment self-consciously upon television news and culture through parody. These programs are, perhaps, the last level in the hierarchy of television news gatekeeping because they serve as a bridge between the story-driven world of straight news programs and the realm of entertainment programming in all media which is the last incarnation of news-based cultural production.

What has been presented here is obviously speculative, but the purpose of this blog from this point on will be to attempt to trace the routes of cultural production as they originate in “breaking news” and make their way through prime time news to analysis programs, comedy, and, ultimately to the social mythologies woven together through narrative production.

No comments: