The Popular in News

Here are comments I made at Cultural Studies and the Popular organized by Jayson Harsin and Mark Hayward at American University of Paris, June 1-2, 2011.

Forces of Resistance and the Popular in the News

I’d like to take up the question raised by Jayson and Mark as a launching point for our discussion here:

Does popular still serve as a a tool for understanding contemporary social struggles? 

I’ll do this by addressing: How the “popular” has changed in the Networked era.

The concept of the popular was developed as  a tool to think about the processes by which ideology is produced and then transformed into “common sense” or naturalized within a society. It was a way to draw attention to the ranges of sites in which political struggles are fought, and to challenge the ridged distinction made by Frankfurt school theorist between consumers and producers.

Today there is no question that the lines between production and consumption are breaking down.  The popular is significantly different today because the threshold for producing and distributing media is so low that the people are now situated in a significantly different position in relation to media then they were when Hall and others sought to understand power dynamics by looking at popular culture.

Two elements of networked environment are particularly relevant to our quest to better understand the popular, and we can see them pronounced in the context of journalism.

1. The proliferation of meta-commentary. This matters, as Nick Couldry points out, because

–As more and more people are involved in the news-making process and as the news-making process becomes a topic of the news, consciousness of reality-construction as an aspect of news production will become more widespread.

–As a result, news is increasingly de-naturalized. The ‘‘underlying arbitrariness’’ of the news, as Couldry puts it (2003), is no longer obscured by the symbolic power of its representations, thus opening it up to increased scrutiny and criticism.

2. The blurring of the lines between professional and “popular.”  In the case of news we see news institutions catering to popular desires to increase market viability but more importantly, I think, we see people going outside the genre to get around its constraints.

Journalism is a particularly good site to looking into the popular because  we can see an overlap between popular as in of the people and popular as in genres that are typically seen as entertainment or distinct from the realm of the overtly politics. (But even seems strange to even say that because today the politics of popular culture is a given.)

I’ll give you a few examples of political contests in networked era news where the “popular” can be examined:

Bondy Blog was started by the of Swiss magazine L’Hebdo during the 2005 riots in France. While journalists from Le Monde, Liberation and other mainstream outlets struggled to gain access to cover exploding banlieues like Bondy, L’Hebdo set up an office there to draw residents to become reporter bloggers. The Bondy blogger material countered narratives dominating national and international press accounts.

Gone Gitmo is an immersive journalism project, which uses a gaming platform to convey the sights, sounds and feelings of the prisoners of the U.S. war on terror camps at Guantanamo Bay.

So-called fake news shows like  US The Daily Show and the Iranian Parazit expose the “fakeness”  of the so-called real news by blurring lines between the genres of comedy, entertainment talk shows, and news creating a sort of remix of the discourse that takes place within these genres.

Most famously we can see the popular in the coverage of the recent uprising in Egypt.

Mobile phone images posted on the web and taken up first by a Facebook group formed around the story of Egyptian 28-year-old Khaled Saeed, who was beaten to death by police, played a key role in sparking the revolution in Egypt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. .

International audiences largely turned away from domestic news outlets and followed the story online, through social networks and at the al Jazeera English-language website, where in some instances, for example in the US government or national interests held almost no power to shape the story.

Twitter feeds and Facebook updates from non-journalists in Egypt and all over the world mixed with professional news media material to narrate events and provide related journalistic analysis and information.

Here’s a map of Twitter, which many of you have probably seen.


Here is Kovas Boguta’s original post of the map.

The map illustrates the way social media and the networked environment are shifting news sourcing. This major geo-political news story relied largely on unofficial sources. Spokespeople at podiums took a backseat to victims, activists, neighbors, citizens.

Far out on the margins of the map, tiny dots represent the White House, U.S. State Department, and Google’s Eric Schmidt.

These examples I think demonstrate that networked actions and media forms are different qualitatively than in the mass media era. In the emerging media environment “the popular” is indeed taking a more central role in shaping journalism and that news as we know it is being replaced by new news-related cultural forms and practices that are more diverse and that allow for more dynamic engagement on the part of members of the public.

To get back to the question:

Does popular still serve as a a tool for understanding contemporary social struggles? 

 I would say Yes. We as scholars need to continue to engage the idea of the popular especially in light of new questions that center on the shifting nature of the popular:

What are the conditions under which the popular can be best mobilized and empowered? 

What role might the popular play in building the environment by having a hand in shaping tools and networks?

How do commercial and geopolitical interests play a role in the construction, preservation, reappropriation of popular networks? 

Stuart Hall famously described cultural change as “a polite euphemism for the process by which some cultural forms and practices are driven out of the centre of popular life, actively marginalized.”

To understand the cultural change taking place today we as scholars must continue to grapple with what the popular means and how it functions and to work toward making clear distinction between popular in the service of the people and popular in the service of commercial and government interests.

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