My goal with this brief essay is to contextualize the concept of “context” in the contexts of the production and consumption of news.
[You can stop giggling now.]
Okay, you shouldn’t interpret my light-hearted attitude going into this as a lack of seriousness. Instead, the task is daunting, and I’m going to fail. As Jay Rosen correctly pointed out in his comment on Friday: “There is no such thing as Context with a capital C.” And in that context, my discussion of context must necessarily range rather widely across the rhetorical situation of American journalism. Didja getit? That was joke (audience: other rhetoric eggheads), because it’s a blatant tautology. I’m going to first consider the context of “context” within the context of an important understanding of context from the discipline of rhetoric: the rhetorical situation.
From the Rhetorica Critical Meter: Lloyd F. Bitzer described the concept of the rhetorical situation in his essay of the same name. The concept relies on understanding a moment called “exigence,” in which something happens, or fails to happen, that compels one to speak out.
Events in and of themselves are ambiguous until humans give them meaning. It is our experience with reality that creates what we understand as meaning. Hurricane Katrina is simply a meteorological phenomenon until humans get in the way. And all of those individual experiences of a thing called Katrina create n = x exigencies that will compel individuals to speak. All this speaking creates individual meaning and, in the aggregate (potentially), socio-political meaning.
Not all voices are equal, however. While the exigence of an experience with Katrina may compel one to speak, our noetic field defines for us whose voices count and don’t count, how the ones that do count reach other ears, and how those ears understand what they hear.
A quick review of noetic field:
A noetic field (as defined by James A. Berlin in Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges) is a “closed system defining what can, and cannot, be known; the nature of the knower; the nature of the relationship between the knower, the known, and the audience; and the nature of language.” Berlin concludes from this (and I agree) that rhetoric “is thus ultimately implicated in all a society attempts. It is at the center of a culture’s activities.” At any given time there is a dominant noetic field and, therefore, a dominant rhetoric.
We’ve now reached a nexus between a rhetoricican’s understanding of rhetorical situation and a potential understanding of context by a Katrina survivor (def. in this case: all those directly affected as victim and responder) in regard to civic voice. The efficacy of that civic voice will be directly proportional to the individual’s position in the noetic field as a knower. All who have been affected by Katrina are knowers, but some are more equal than others.
The noetic field, as a human construct, cannot decide who the knowers are–only people using their understanding of the field can do that by conforming to a process of mediation privileged by the field, i.e. the news media (including citizen media).
That process, especially as practiced by journalists, allows the concept of “knower” to shift based on the profession’s way of structuring ambiguous reality, i.e. as a narrative. The press applies a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events (to put events into context). Each event, as a master narrative made up of discreet sub-narratives, has antagonists and protagonists locked in struggles (plots) leading to climaxes. So at any given point in time during an event, the press may privilege a variety of knowers based on the sub-narrative they construct.
Rhetorica readers will recognize narrative as one of the structural biases of journalism I have articulated. Another way to think of these biases: they constitute the rhetorical situation of journalism, i.e. the framework for exigencies that compel journalists to speak. And we know from speech-act theory and the sub-theory of illocutionary point that people do not speak for no reason. The structural biases provide a context within which journalists understand how to see the world, structure the world, and articulate it to an audience.
Everything that I’ve written so far could be summed up this way: If I construct your story (because I have the power to do so) based on my context (rhetorical situation and my framework for exigence), then I necessarily marginalize your context (your experiences and values).
I’ve certainly been guilty of saying things such as: “The press ought to provide more context.” And I’ve usually followed that up with some specific related to the situation under discussion. Rosen called this “a big black box with unsolved journalistic problems in it.” I’m not going to argue with him. I started this essay saying I’d fail. Now we’ve reached that moment.
It is terribly difficult for journalists to understand and/or articulate the world outside of the frames their professional practice constructs. It’s not a matter of smarts. It’s a matter of what professional practice dictates and the noetic field allows.
The story journalism tells is always the story of the context (the rhetorical situation) of journalism. As long as it constructs, structures, and mediates the stories of others, those others will always feel their contexts have been lost or ignored. Cries for context, then, are cries to walk a mile in n = x shoes (which, it seems to me, is impossible).
To ask that journalists provide more context is to ask them to consider different narratives. And if they can “see” a standard narrative structure, and if that narrative is compelling based on their structural biases, then journalists will provide that “context”–albeit appropriated by journalism for journalistic purposes.
To be continued…