Addendum: More on Schemas

In everyday life, people rely on what can be referred to as cognitive models, maps or schemas of how the world works. They use these schemas to organize their perception of events and determine how to act. Not unexpectedly, these are often tied in with emotional responses, which profoundly influence perception and action. The schemas are derived from each person's experience and cultural inheritance, building on basic cognitive and psychological capacities. As people go through life, they are forever identifying situations by seeing which schemas these fit into; they also modify the schemas in the light of new experience and learning, allowing their ideas to evolve over time.

Actually, we all use two kinds of schemas: a general model of how the world works and our place in it, and models of specific events that tell us how these events fit into the more general model. We have a schema for what a robbery looks like, and when we see something that fits it well enough, we spontaneously create a kind of conscious model in our minds of the specific event as an instance of a robbery. Given that these more general models are partly based on events and checked against events, they usually convey a certain amount of accurate information about the world. But they select only some aspects of reality; they oversimplify and may contain erroneous information. At best, they are imperfect reflections.

When a journalists covers an event, he tries to match the situation he is observing or being told about to just such schemas or cognitive models, so he will know how to portray them to the public. Like everyone else, journalists covering stories use these models to determine what kind of situation they are perceiving and how they should act in each situation. And like everyone else, journalists have varying degrees of awareness about the models and the way they are used.

But the schemas used by journalists differ from those used in everyday life in a number of ways. First, they must use their models to construct organized narratives in pictures and/or words. This means the schema must be used to determine if there is a story, what kind of story it is, and how to construct it. Second, journalists are interested in a very specific aspect of the world and they seek to portray it with a limited set of schemas or ideas.

In this process of determining how to apply these cognitive models to construct the news, journalists never stand alone. The selection of, and creation of, news is a group process, that starts with those in public life who may invent or orchestrate an event, or seek to present an interpretation of it, so it will be seen as fitting a certain schema. Whatever else these players may want the schema to include, it usually includes the following communication: "What we are doing or have done or will do is morally right, competent and desirable. What our opponents are doing (if there are opponents) is not." Similarly, journalists derive their ideas from other journalists and other people. Editors making assignments, supervising the process and editing copy will also influence the process, since they have their own ideas, which may differ from the ideas of those being covered and from the reporters.

As journalists go about constructing stories, based on these schemas, they are subject to a strange disparity. The journalist has a generalized model in his mind of events and news stories, and he has his own perceptions of how particular events fit in to that schema. He will then construct a news story, which is itself a model of events, which is offered to audiences. But that model will only partly correspond to the model the journalist has in his mind about the nature of the events in question. A great deal is left out, which means that the public is denied much of the relevant information that could help it judge the news story and the events it describes.

For example, the journalist has a set of maps and procedures that tell him how to construct a news story. These say, for example, that a good news story should be a narrative, have characters, be related to some recent happening, be about something that is considered relevant to public life or have something interesting that will hook the reader, and so on. In the case of most television news, these maps and procedures tell him that live is better than taped, that scenes with action are better than scenes without action, that scenes of important people are often better than scenes with unknown people, that everything must be brief and move at a rapid pace, and so on. These and other, similar rules, profoundly shape the news story, but are no where explained to audiences.*

The journalist may also know a great deal more about events he covers than he tells, so this too is left out. Much of what he knows can't be said. It is unverified or provided confidentially or it is irrelevant to the story but still effects how he writes the story, or it would lose him sources or turn him into a target of public anger. The reporter's stories may be affected by the fact that he is angry at the mayor, because of the way the mayor treats the press. Or, a local reporter may know that the city's real business is conducted in secret meetings involving influence peddlers who make promises behind the scenes. But the reporter may dutifully go to the city commission meetings and write pro forma news stories that make the decision-making process sound bureaucratic, rational and oriented toward questions of the public interest, rather than about who knows who, who stands to make a lot of money, whose spouse will get a contract, who knows where the skeletons are buried and so on. So the model of events that he presents and the one he actually forms in his mind, may be vastly different.

The journalist may also have a model of motivation and of how the world works that he uses to understand events. Indeed, he may have developed the model, in part, by observing government and public life in action. But much of this too may never make it into his stories. Audiences will never benefit from that learning process, although other reporters may well hear the story based on this model in social settings, when real truths, as opposed to the faux truths of so many news stories, are told.

Still another thing that journalists leave out, habitually and as a matter of practice and principle, is themselves, their own role in the process and the fact that that their basic assumptions can be applied to themselves, as well.

It is said, in the section on news content, that the press covers amplifying chains of action, interaction and reaction but what they rarely explain, in detail, as opposed to in general comments, is that they are a crucial link in the chain of action. The news media is one of the central actors in these chains, amplifying the effect of actions, evoking and amplifying reactions, and revealing hidden actions. This fact is included in the models used by journalists, but their idea of what news stories are supposed to consist of usually tells them to exclude these facts as officially irrelevant. In effect, they define themselves and their peers as not being news. They may increasingly be forced to refer to themselves as a part of the story, but they prefer those references to be general. And they may refer to politicians as posing for them and contriving information for their benefit, but, once again, their references to themselves will only be very general. The actions of specific journalists rarely get described, except in stories in which the press's role has become an unavoidable issue.

It is said, elsewhere in this book, that the media judges and describes the politicians according to how they fit in the value order of society. But the journalists are governed by and judged by how they, in their stories and behavior, fit into this same order. It is said, elsewhere in this book, that journalists show politicians exercising power and submitting to power. But news stories are themselves complex actions that involve efforts to dominate or submit to politicians. The narratives about power that journalists create are partly shaped by how effectively those described (and how effectively hidden players) can influence them with fear and favor. Similarly, news stories are shaped by complex group processes in which journalists influence each other’s behavior.

We said that the press portrays public figures as trying to construct and enhance their own image while they try to attach a less flattering image to many other players. But this is true of the press, as well, which presents a constructed image of itself in its news products that often conceals its true motives and actions, while it exposes the image created by others. Indeed, if you look closely at many news stories, you can discover that even as politicians are described as engaging in all kinds of action, the reporter is engaging in all kinds of action in and through his news story.

We don't learn about any of this in any detail because there is virtually no second news media to reveal the truth about the news media. What there is - books about campaigns, occasional media critics and ombudsman, and occasional background stories, fairly frequent complaints from public figures which rarely get a detailed airing, and occasional controversies that place the media center stage - aren't enough to create a critical mass that would truly allow us to say that the news media and its role is itself being treated as news. Unless driven to desperation, politicians are usually too timid and too shrewd to complain, except in general terms. Thus the news media occupies a privileged position, in which it describes how the politicians manipulate it and the public, but is rarely forced to tell how the press manipulates politicians and public to achieve its own goals. It punches holes in the pretensions of politicians and describes politicians doing the same to each other, but few people return the favor, a slight that very definitely needs to be corrected.

* These characteristics of news are more openly discussed, today, than when this was written, although the point is still a correct one.

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