I have started, stopped, and restarted this post four times. Basically, all I’m trying to do is talk about Egypt, media, propaganda (as a value-neutral political marketing word), and news selection, about how history isn’t just written by the victors but by the editors.
The problem is that I’m exhausted. That the news hasn’t slowed down enough for me to eat a meal away from a screen (honestly, sometimes as many as three live screens) since the Giffords shooting. And I’ve been on the night-shift for the last week, covering Asia and Europe. Then on Friday at about 3am, I spoke to Patty in India who has no news access there, to tell her Egypt was falling.
Fundamentally, the unifying nature of all the stuff I do is that I’m interested in how we tell stories, whether they be fiction or not fiction. I’m interested in (although not exclusively) the space between what we think we’re talking about and what statistical examination of what we’re saying actually shows we’re talking about. When we talk about the news, we call this agenda-setting theory, although many of its basic principles can also be applied to fiction. Time, however, has a much different function when dealing with fiction over non-fiction because fiction is generally happening in a forever-past that is also a constant-now and non-fiction is generally happening linearly and currently.
When you choose what news to read to garner information about the situation in Egypt, you are performing an editorial function on behalf of yourself and engaging in news selection. When it’s easier for you (if you’re in the US) to access The New York Times vs. Al Jezeera, or you are leery of accessing Al Jezeera because of its association in the US with terrorism (which, if you’ve ever left Al Jezeera on for 24 hours like some of us also do CNN, you’d realize is essentially absurdist), you are being impacted by news selection activities from others that ultimately help dictate your own news selection choices. When you read an article or watch a TV report, no matter where it is, there has been news selection that impacts both the language used in that report, the prominence of the placement of that report in the media in question, and the decision to make that report available at all.
News selection is the central manipulation (again, used here, like propaganda above, as a neutral term) through which we understand the world. But, as viewer, we mostly don’t feel like this is the case. What we don’t see as or don’t personally select, we don’t consider; it is often as if the material we do not select never even existed to be chosen or not. So there is the news we see, and there is nothing. Even if we don’t trust the news we see, our ability to be mindful about what didn’t make the selection available to our personal experience is often incredibly low. That’s why agenda-setting theory is so compelling. That’s why the agenda matters so much.
Fiction can be considered in all the same ways (and on the many more detailed levels that also come into play with news-related agenda setting theory, but I’m not sure I’m getting there in this post). Story selection happens much the same way and is conducted by you, by writers, by editors and then by the journalists and pundits of fiction: critics and fan communities. How much screen time did Jack and Ianto’s relationship get in the first two seasons of Torchwood if we count it scene by scene or statement by statement? How much screen time does it get in fandom if I look at the number of fanfiction stories self-described as focusing on that part of the shows narrative? What does the audience member ultimately see? What was in the story or what they were told (or participated in telling others) was in the story?
It works with anything really. Compare how many statements in the Harry Potter books were meant to showcase that bullying was bad to how many statements showed characters you were supposed to view as heroes engaging in bullying without repercussion (another fun one there is to look at what the films say about tragedy vs. the books solely due to character age in the text vs. casting ages in the films).
Or, take a look at Buffy and Angel, do a gut check, and then see if that matches up with the focus the shows ultimately put on life vs. death. The message you extrapolated might be different than the one you were actively being told depending on where else you were getting information-selection on the two series.
The many iterations of Sherlock Holmes, particularly that of the recent BBC series, Sherlock, provides us with a particularly fun one if we look at, on a scene-by-scene or statement-by-statement bass, statements about character’s sexualities and compare those frequencies and shares to what goes on in fandom. Are the canonical characters that surround Sherlock in the narrative (that is, his fictional audience) queering him? Or is that solely an act of fandom (his non-fictional audience)?
News-selection and salience when compared to audience responses can have predictive qualities regarding media influence. They can also highlight, especially with regard to fiction, what are effectively optical illusions of the soul.
The place where this stuff can, and often does, intersect the most vividly is when we have news rounded up, tightly edited and set to music. It’s like the montages of those who died in the last year we get at the Academy Awards or in that “a look back at the year that was” stuff that airs non-stop between December 27 and January 3 because there’s usually little new news in the world when so many people (at least people with the power and resources to agenda set) are on holiday. These things are news selection on top of news selection: a greatest hits of the agenda, framed in narrative styles we more closely associate with fiction.
Mostly, I think of these things as interstitials and station promos that make me tear up if I watch CNN when I’m feeling particularly fragile. But thanks to the Internet, cheap and relatively easy video editing, and a world in which huge numbers of people outside of agenda-setting institutions (unless you choose to count the Internet as one), finally, have the power to be agenda setters for more than themselves, Tamer Shaaban has made this video about the current situation in Egypt. It is exceptional in its use of image, music, rhythm, and framing to connect the viewer not just to the events, but to a selected emotional state about those events. When I first saw it yesterday, it had 10,000 views. At the time of this posting? Nearly 200,000.
History is a type of story we tell. And it is told not just by the victors, and not just by writers, but also by editors. In the world as it is now, we are all, in one way or another, increasingly capable of being those editors, if only for ourselves. And that experience of the world, and our increased of ability to share that experience of the world, both helps us understand stories as they happen, but can, in fact, also help obscure them.
I can, for example, try to aggregate the facts that seem pressing and relevant to me from multiple broadcasts — which is one form of news-selection — or I can tell you that sometimes it seems that history (by which, of course, I also mean narrative, and mythology) focuses to a point always in certain places, like Berlin. And, this week, like Alexandria.
It’s all true, in its way. But is any of it accurate? If news is arguably a showcase for the public events of the human heart, are facts truly certain or viable? And if fiction showcases the truth of our collective longings, what matters more — the stories we’ve actually seen or the ones we’re convinced we did because they were what we wanted, so much and more than anything?