Schudson and the “Social Empathy” Role of the Press

Today the well-known scholar and University of California San Diego professor Michael Schudson came to the Missouri School of Journalism to speak to an eager crowd of what I will fondly call a bunch of nerds, myself included.  The room was packed with plenty of folks sprawled out on the floor and the PhD-student list-serv had been afire with witty banter about bringing our lighters to show one of our field’s most respected scholars our appreciation, until it was disclosed  by one of the cooler among us that kids these days use cell phones at concerts instead.  Oh.  Well, anyway.

Schudson outlined what he sees as the functions, or roles of journalism in society, which he believes are more complex and nuanced than commonly espoused normative mission of serving democracy.  I won’t list out all of his functions, but I did notice that they essentially paralleled the principles of journalism outlined in the Bible, aka Elements (by Kovach and Rosenstiel).  For example, he cited investigations or digging up information,  providing a public forum, making complex issues concise and comprehensible, etc.

The one I thought was most interesting was what he termed “social empathy.”  This is the idea that a primary role of journalism is to bring an compassionate understanding of how people very different from us experience their lives.  These may be people who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not vote, and as thus they do not play any kind of active role in democracy — but Schudson thinks that journalists’ role in  helping us understand  their perspectives and creating social empathy is one of the most important functions of the press — and one that, in his view, news organizations are increasingly doing a better and better job at.

Schudson cited some preliminary data — he’s still doing the research — showing a marked surge in the use of the anecdotal lead and what he termed the “analytic/interpretive” lead from the 1960s to today, supplanting the more conventional hard news lead.  To his surprise, stories from the Vietnam era very rarely lead with an anecdote or analysis; today, the use of these types of leads in Iraq coverage have absolutely skyrocketed.  A reporter writing today about a malady faced by soldiers, for example, is significantly more likely to begin with one soldier’s personal  story before digging into the larger issues at stake.  In his view, reporters are doing a better job than ever before in giving us entry points into a story and showing us why we should care.  It’s certainly nice to get some props from a press critic

What wasn’t entirely clear to me (and I welcome clarification from others who were there) is why he thinks that these functions he described somehow refute the late scholar Jim Carey’s statement that journalism is a another name for democracy (which Schudson referred to as more of a “normative plea” rather than a factual statement). He seems to be saying that journalism is about much more than giving people the information they need to vote, which I would agree with, but I’m not quite sure who, including Carey, wouldn’t.  Elements describes the most fundamental purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to be free and govern themselves, and I think that the “be free” part has a broad meaning and scope.  If at some very fundamental  level we don’t understand and feel compassion for each other (at least some of the time), the respect for the rule of law and the ability to cooperate on common problems, both cornerstones of democracy, would be threatened.  I don’t know, though.  I am probably only feebly understanding his point here.

Some of my friends who study new media were also were somewhat dissatisfied with his view on blogs, which he seemed to think were all fine and good, but didn’t have much of a role to play in fulfilling any of these functions.  I wasn’t quite sure how to parse what he meant there.


Filed under Research on Newsroom Change

6 responses to “Schudson and the “Social Empathy” Role of the Press

  1. Jeremy

    We had an interesting time in his later session as well. He seems much more comfortable with the newsperson as predictor and entertainer than I am, saying what people want to know is “who’s winning the horserace more than they want to wonk out on policy.”

    I have always been uncomfortable with our journalism drifting into that territory. We are not experts in any thing. You can get an opinion from any old person, but journalism is the last place to go for a nuanced picture of the world in some semblance of context (minus cable news, which is dumb).

    Blogs keep the media on its toes and doing its job. Someone has to watch the watchdog, in my opinion, to keep us from drifting into infotainment.

  2. JG

    Seems the decline in circulation coincides somewhat with the rise of the analytic/anecdotal lede. Spurious correlation or something more?

  3. Doreen Marchionni

    I think the decline in straight-news ledes actually coincides most dramatically with the rise of the Internet. And THAT has definitely jettisoned the decline in print circulation. Dunno, though.

  4. Doreen Marchionni

    …. Er, that would be jettisoned the RISE in print circulation.

  5. changingnewsroom

    Hmm. Yelvington writes about the role of journalism as indeed being primarily a democracy-promoting one, but in an expanse sense of the word. Read his whole piece:

    “By informing, we empower individuals to take an active and participatory role in defining our collective future. Our real product is not the newspaper or the website or the corporate profit margin, but rather a democratic society that works….Democracy works when people have a strong enough web of trust that they are able to work together, and when people have faith that their own actions can make a difference.”

  6. changingnewsroom

    expansive sense of the word, that is. Good grief, I can’t type.

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