September 12, 2005

Considering the ‘C’ word…

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…

9 Responses

  1. Marc Schneider 

    Very interesting post. Does that mean that cries for “context” are simply demands for that particular person’s context? If we know that journalists can only present story in context within the framework the journalistic narrative structure, does this mean that we should be skeptical of anything we read or hear because the mediating effects of journalistic structure limits what journalists can actually convey? And does this mean journalists, whether intentional or not, help to define how we think about a particular issue or situation? And, if so, doesn’t this mean that news is, by its very nature, manipulated?

    I’m not trying to be argumentative, necessarily. But I’m struggling with something that has increasingly bothered me about journalism–or perhaps more accurately, about the epistemology of journalism. How do we deal with the fact that journalism operates in this noetic field and that any particular presentation will necessarily privilege some points of view over others? I guess my issue is how do we deal with the fact that there may not be a single “truth” in a situation but a multiplicity of “truths”? Can we realistically expect journalism to provide these multiplicity of truths?

  2. rgrafton 

    Howlin’ Bob is no academic, but he nails narrative bias in 50 words less when he says: “…you know how your ‘press corps’ is! Once they’ve all agreed on a script, they all begin to improve basic facts! Their jobs become easier; their story gets better…”

  3. Marc…

    Not necessarily.

    I’ll try to get to the questions in your second paragraph as I add to this “essay.” Your questions will be a big help in focusing the next installment or two. Hmmmm…this could get lengthy.

    But, I want to make a short stab at this one: “Can we realistically expect journalism to provide these multiplicity of truths?”

    No, we can’t. Even if journalists could “find” a story in a multiplicity of truths, there’s not enough time or space in the typical journalistic product to treat them with any intelligence. So journalism is, to use James W. Carey’s term, a curriculum that teaches people how to understand the world they way journalists do (a guide of sorts to the noetic field). But it’s always a limited view of limited experiences.

  4. Thanks a lot for being game and doing this, Andy.

    I didn’t fully understand the first third, though. My favorite part was this: “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 [another’s] shoes (which, it seems to me, is impossible).” That’s an insight I had never had before, and helps explain what people mean by “provide context.”

    I thought you might say what I would say (how dumb is that?) which is that context is always related to purpose. This, I think, is how a pragmatist (in the philosphical sense) would see it. If our purpose is the recovery of memory, that might be one way of adding context. If our purpose is “making sure this doesn’t happen again,” that would point to another. If the purpose is “helping Missourians cast an intelligent vote next month,” that might tell you which context to add.

    So to the question: “well, which context should we add?” a pragmatist would say: depends on your purpose in telling me this story, what’s your purpose here?

  5. rgrafton 

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t understand this post, but the good news is that after 3 years, I finally grasp the concept of “narrative bias.” Please hold your applause. The key for me was being able to access lots of information and then observe what news outlets chose to include, exclude or marginalize. The noetic field thingee is going to need more work. ‘-)

    But my question now, since I intend to interject “narrative bias” into every comment thread I encounter concerning “the press has a liberal/conservative bias, is who is the author of “structural bias”? If my reading is correct, it is your theory. If not, please let me know, so that I may properly credit the originator.

  6. Jay and R- I’ll be writing some more about this. It’ll become another of my “blog essays.” So I’ll try to work on the clarity of the opening third.

    Jay, I like your pragmatic view of “context.” And I don’t think it’s incompatible with anything I’ve written so far. In fact, it’s a rhetorical stance that I’m quite familiar with. But when I started writing this thing, I found myself digging deeper into journalism as “situated discourse.”

    More to come…

  7. Sisyphus 

    Jay Rosen: “… depends on your purpose in telling me this story …”

    Andy Cline: “… journalists will provide that “context”–albeit appropriated by journalism for journalistic purposes.”

    If p is the propositional content (purpose in this context?) and F is the illocutionary force, then does the force of the Katrina coverage really mean the media has spine? Or is the propositional content where the spine is located?

    Or is it something else: F^r(p) / C ->PE … ?

  8. acline 

    Sys- Good questions. I’ll keep it in mind for part 2…coming on Monday.

  9. It doesn’t look like my trackback took, so …

    Is News an Illocutionary Act? If so, What’s the Illocutionary Point?