Rodrigo Davies

Thoughts on Neighborly, civic crowdfunding and the future of community development

The news as a social process for improving society

11 Sep 2012

As most of you have been expecting, I've now moved to Cambridge, MA where I'm working as a Research Assistant at the MIT Center for Civic Media while pursuing an MS in Comparative Media Studies. For the next few months I'll be focusing on several very exciting areas - civic mapping, a new civic information platform based around New Day New Standard, learning VOIP Drupal scripting and a project with the Harvard Community Innovation Lab based in Boston's Dudley Street neighbourhood. More on all of the above to follow.

From now on I'll also be cross-posting many of my posts on the Civic Media blog. Here's the first.

Francis Steen, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at UCLA and Director of the UCLA Library Communication Studies Archive, spoke at the Media Lab for an event organised by the ICE (Imagination, Computation, and Expression) Lab today. Denise and I liveblogged it, so let us know where the errors are and we'll fix them. 

Francis Steen begins by posing the question: why do we have news?

It's not a question of accuracy, he argues; we should look at the news as a way of thinking. Think of the news as a state space that includes what is possible and what is valuable. That is, the news take events that occur in the world and place them in terms of what is valuable and what is possible.

Steen uses the example of the killing of 77 people at a youth camp in Norway and the bombing of a government office in Central Oslo on July 22, 2011 by Anders Behring Breivik; the coverage by Norwegian mainstream media was catalogued and analyzed at the UCLA Library Communication Studies Archive. Steen deconstructs the evolution of the news story beginning with the creation of meaning and evidence around an event and moving towards attempts to ask and answer questions that individuals believe will help improve society.


The first stage of the news is to provide you with evidence. Images become available rapidly through television and amateur footage. What the news does is situate these images, and puts you into the position of being a witness of an event. This could be in footage of dust floating in the air in Oslo streets. In these situations, the camera becomes the viewer's window and a pseudo-first person perspective.

"It's a powerful positioning of the viewer. We call this the Telelusion Effect: positioning the viewer at the point of the lens. You become part of the crowd and you are grieving with the audience. In other words, we infer who we are from what we see," Steen says. At this early stage of the events, there is not yet a fully formed narrative.


In Norway, victims' voices were invited into the mainstream media very quickly (selection bias varies dramatically between countries). They were taken seriously as equal interlocutors and given camera time. Typically, victims are not allowed to have eye contact with the viewer, but their voices are included. The audience is immediately led to feel empathy with the victims. The emotional toll of all these voices creates an emotional potential and pressure to deal with those meanings. At this point, the media begin to shape the narrative.

Explanation and construction of a casual diagram

This is where the event is now contextualized. The news value no longer rests in the event having happened (the evidence); it must contextualize what happened and create a casual diagram.

Immediately after the Norway attack, the news channels went wild suggesting it was a Muslim attack. They suggested the Muhammad cartoons and Norway's participation in the NATO bombing of Libya could be possible motivations / evidence to support that interpretation. A net was cast suggesting a whole series of events that could have led to the attack.

It was found that the killer had released a press kit explaining his motivations, in an attempt to control his media portrayal, and that he professed his aim to be social change. The killings were essentially a publicity event designed to attract media attention. But the media - and the public - was unwilling to accept this. This was partly because killing attendees of a youth camp was unlikely to further the cause of social change that he claimed he wanted (an end to multiculturalism in Norway). It could not be accepted that the real cause of events was the manifesto, so the media began to reconstruct the key developmental moments of Breivik's life. But, Steen says, it's not enough just to understand that the event happened and the event's circumstances. The media and the public were not satisfied with Breivik's reasons, and they begin what Steen calls event surgery.

Narratives for intervention

The news doesn't stop at the presentation of evidence. The news need to assemble a narrative, because it's through a narrative that human beings figure out how to intervene in the world, how to become involved to change the world. "We expect television to give us those narratives, so that we feel empowered," Steen said.

Steen explains that in the context of the scientific method, for instance, Pearl has argued that to make a causal claim requires an intervention. "We can't change the past, but what we can do is a really detailed construction in our imagination and generate a pretty good sense of what could have happened and therefore what could have been done," Steen says.

Survivors and victims' families were given very wide coverage in the media in Norway. They began to ask: How could the police have let this happen? Could I, one of the victims that escaped, have gone back and saved someone?

Steen explained. "Massive amounts of news coverage is about what never happened...As a society, what we really care about is what's possible."

Once the event(s) has been reconstructed and accounted for, it is possible to identify windows of possible intervention, or what Steen calls causal surgery. What could have been different in Breivik life so that he wouldn't have gone down this path? It suggests that the media is looking for a place to lay blame, or accountability. Eventually in the case of the Oslo bombing, instead of going after Breivik, the emphasis fell on the police and whether they had done enough: it was noted, for instance, that the police were delayed in getting to the island where the killings took place, but the police did not accept responsibility.

"There was no self-criticism and therefore no promise that they would do better next time. However, the anger of the parents was so great that this response was considered not good enough," Steen said, demonstrating that this stage of media coverage was caught in between two spaces: What could have happened (possible) and what actions that could have changed the course of events (valuable). At the intersection of these two spaces, Steen says, is the normative point of what 'should have happened.'

Steen shows some revealing video footage of the commission of inquiry into the events, which defined its role as establishing the facts "for social learning." The commission found that the perpetrator could have been stopped earlier and its final report contains deontic imperatives like - is that a reasonable thing to say? "You should have known X."

As a result of the inquiry, many of the senior police officers in Norway stepped down. Norway's largest newspaper, VG, called for the Prime Minister to step down (he didn't, and remains in his role).

"You can think of the news as providing a high-speed short-term set of tools for taking charge of society - in great contrast to the legal system. It's part of the governance of society [recalls Burke's famous reference to the Fourth Estate]. A rational press is, in a sense, a measure of the ability of society to take charge of its future."

Steen draws several cognitive lessons from these analyses: that "human cognition operates by creating complex, multidimensional simulations of events, and these events involve huge think spaces. Facts are merely points in our understanding of reality, and our broader understanding involves the space for ability of the individual to allocate resources in a way that changes history. That is our implied social role, which is embedded in the news."