Building Community Through Stories About Real Events:

The Habitus Of Broadcast Journalism

Elliot Gaines, Ph.D.

 

in Building Diverse Communities Through Research. 

Eds. Mark Orbie, Trevy McDonald, and T. Ford-Ahmed.  Hampton Press.  (2002).

 

Introduction: Community, Habitus, and Broadcast Journalism

               This chapter looks at "how" the institution of broadcast journalism builds a virtual community from the diverse population represented in the audience. Assuming the power and impact of mass media, I have intentionally bracketed very significant ideological issues surrounding the veracity and objectivity of television news.  Those issues are addressed in other studies (see Himmelstein, 1994; Bird and Dardenne, 1988; Fiske, 1987).  My principle interest here is to explicate the everyday communication practices of TV news associated with the process of building community.

               Informed by Pierre Bourdieuıs concept of habitus, I focus on one specific story and examine television news as an exemplar of a commercial mass medium communicating in a way that suggests that the viewers comprise a community that share values, rituals, and common interests.  The habitus ³is a set of dispositions which incline agents to act and react in certain ways,² and provides the structure for such ordinary behaviors such as communication (Thompson, 1991, p12).  Bourdieuıs approach takes up a form of phenomenological sociology developed by Alfred Schutz and provides an orientation between objectivism and subjectivism that ³presupposes the possibility of some kind of immediate apprehension of the lived experience of others² (Thompson, 1991, p11).  Phenomenology reflects an orientation toward the "lived experience and practical actions of everyday life" (Van Manen, 1990, p. 4).  The concept of habitus addresses the preconscious generation and organization of practices and representations (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 480).  Interpreted within a context of broadcast journalism, the habitus describes the essence of practice within an occupational culture engaged in communicating news and information with a community linked by media.

               I consider the notion of community in a very broad context regarding the concept of habitus.  The institution of broadcast journalism assumes its communicative functions fulfill an objective position that plays an inclusive role within the greater community.  Thus, I argue that the habitus of broadcast journalism incorporates assumptions about both production and consumption of stories circulating in the news.  The practices of broadcast journalists incorporate a belief and intent to maintain relations with the more diverse and nebulus interests that theoretically unify members of society.  At the same time, I puposefully do not address the very important issues of polysemy and oppositional readings which require a depth of analysis beyond the scope of this study. 

               Considering the discursive elements of television news, the team of people involved in production, and the social stratification of viewers, the habitus provides the "principles which generate and organize practices and representations . . . embodied history, internalized as a second nature and so forgotten as history . . . the active presence of the whole past of which it is a product" (Bourdieu, 1993, p.483).  Thus, the habitus describes "community" as a collection of people predisposed to share certain beliefs and characteristics that are incorporated into everyday practical life.

 

 

Community and Society

               Our beliefs about community are evident in the way we live our everyday lives, but the diversity and fragmentation of contemporary settings make a precise description difficult.  The concept of community is shrouded in myth based on ideas about how people lived at some other time in history.  According to Gumpert, the myth suggests rural communities from the past that were peaceful, harmonious, and based on caring relationships between people that contrast with today's fragmented, fast-paced, technological, urban lifestyles (1987, pp. 168-9).  He continues by elaborating on a theoretical distinction between community and society proposed by German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies.  Basically, community is understood as a group of people living in a particular location that have interests in common, a personal commitment to each other, that are friends and family sharing a consanguine, tribal closeness, values, traditions, and lifestyle.  Society is contrasted by relationships that are based on "division of labor" and "contractual ties instead of social commitment" which defines people as " . . . a collection of socially isolated individuals" (Gumpert, 1987, pp.169-171).

               In an age of electronic communication, rapid transit, and mass media, proximity is no longer a restriction in social relations and communities are now defined through common interests, commitments, and lifestyles.  You may not know your next door neighbor, but you might maintain a close relationship with a member of your professional, business, political or religious community from another city, state, or country.  Nearness does not designate your next door neighbor as part of your community if you do not recognize common interests, shared values, and commitments.  It is at this level that mass media build bridges of communication by constructing conceptual links to shared values and common interests between otherwise disassociated members of society.

               Mass communication provides entertainment and information that is intended to have an influence on large diverse audiences (DeFleur & Dennis 1996).  Journalists in particular view mass communication as having an obligation as "carriers of public discussion and information, acting on their Constitutional mandate to learn and report . . . " news to the public (Black, J., Steele, B., & Barney, R., 1995, p. 6).  A journalism code of ethics includes the awareness that " . . .members serve many communities and interests . . . " (Black et al., 1995, p. 8).  Thus, broadcast journalists believe themselves to be part of an extended community with an obligation to fulfill a specific role by communicating news and information.  This belief in a virtual mediated community and the practices used to carried out the work of broadcast journalism are the manifestation of the habitus.

               Defined by Bourdieu, "habitus" is the preconscious structuring of practice (1993, p. 480), a common sense way of behaving based on beliefs and understandings about the nature of reality.  The process of community building happens at a preconscious level through communication practices that bridge various institutions and social strata.  Habitus encompasses the history, beliefs, and rituals that are so well integrated in practice as to be forgotten and taken-for-granted by the individuals within a community.  For example, habitus resides in codes of behavior that children learn at the playground that are not necessarily spoken, but understood and followed.  The same would apply for codes of professionals such as physicians and medical students regarding behavior, dress, and relationships with teachers, patients, and colleagues.  The film A Few Good Men starring Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and Jack Nicholson, is based on an example of a military code of behavior.  Although the code was unwritten, it was universally known and followed within the community of soldiers because, as part of the habitus, it was understood as the correct way for things to be done even when resulting in the death of a fellow soldier.  Scholarly research is a good example of habitus as academics are deeply engaged in rituals and practices preparing conference papers and publications.

               The concept of habitus, applied to an institution such as broadcast journalism, demonstrates how a community is built around shared beliefs and values that manifest in everyday practices.  Members of the community believe that their actions are reasonable and justified because they assume their vision of the world is valid and true.  Broadcast journalism is a commercial institution with a social purpose, and the power of media news stories reinforces values and conformity with norms and moral convention within a virtual community.  Communication is a bridge between diverse viewing populations.  The Harding/Kerrigan TV news story provides an exemplar that demonstrates community values that distinguish right from wrong and us from them.

 

The "Nancy Kerrigan Incident"

               Throughout the following sections, analysis of the Harding/Kerrigan story make refrences to specific original television broadcasts.  All citations are derived from a taped collection of broadcasts provided by the Vanderbilt Television News Archive (1995) unless otherwise noted.

               After a rehearsal on January 6th, 1994, Nancy Kerrigan, a contender for the US Olympic figure skating team was injured as the result of an attack.  No witnesses saw the attacker.  However, a news journalist shot video of Kerrigan's practice session.  The camera followed Kerrigan as she left the ice and walked behind a curtain.  Concealed from view behind the curtain, she was struck by a masked man.  In response to Kerrigan's screams, the camera operator rushed through the curtain to find the skater writhing in pain on the floor in a hallway leading to an exit from the practice rink.  The habitus dictates that the camera operator's role in the situation is not to help the injured individual, but to record the moment as "news" for the community.

               The "eye-witness" video captured the moments before and immediately after the attack.  The missing seconds from the video would presumably hold the essential information that would identify the attacker and make sense of the sequence of events.  The habitus provides links between the actual events and speculation based on beliefs about the world that sustain interest in the mystery.

               Why was Nancy Kerrigan assaulted and who was the attacker?  Speculation, while apparently reasonable, is based solely on assumptions constructed through the media's identity of Kerrigan and overlooks the possibility of unknown details or random circumstances.  Kerrigan is never directly questioned by the media.  Thus, the community of broadcast journalism constructed a continuing narrative based on shared beliefs and codes of behavior that generated speculation about the "who and why" of the event.

               The mysterious assailant escaped and the incident was a headline news story reported on national network television.  News related to the event continued for several months, but the focus of the story shifted early from the victim to the mystery, motives, and identity of the escaped assailant and co-conspirators including competing figure skater, Tonya Harding.  The story evolved into a complex serial narrative exploiting the celebrity status of Kerrigan and Harding, but defining them outside their roles as competitive athletes. 

               While presented as non-fiction, the Harding/Kerrigan story was an elaborate construction pieced together from archive footage and fragments of news in order to build intrigue and suspense.  The incident was depicted as a crime story, but Harding was condemned, not by evidence of any criminal action she allegedly committed, but by pejorative representations generated by the news.  Events were staged, reconstructed, and dramatized.  The "eye witness" video was edited over the course of several days following the incident which tended to isolate fragments of video and alter the meaning of clips extracted from the same original source.  Other old footage and interviews were recontextualized to perpetuate the narrative and facilitate character development which sustained interest in the story. 

               These practices of broadcast journalism manifest the habitus as the culturally shared history and codes of story-telling that employ production technologies.  Sensationalism and the exploitation of celebrity fame also characterize the application of another concept from Bourdieu, "cultural capital," which refers to the currency or value of a familiar name or topic within the praxis and habitus of television news (Fiske, 1987, pp. 18-20).

               The theoretical concepts of habitus, cultural capital, and storytelling are examined further in the following sections explicating their relationship to community beliefs and values expressed in television news.  The application of these principles is demonstrated by the analysis of the televisual text that follows.  Finally, a summary of the analysis draws conclusions about the habitus within the community of broadcast journalism.

 

Bourdieu's Habitus, Storytelling, and Broadcast Journalism

               The culture of news production is analogous to Bourdieu's habitus as a " . . . way in which enduring social things achieve spontaneous expression in practical life" (Lemert, 1993, p. 206).  That expression is achieved through the tradition of narrative storytelling in television news.

               Television acts as a "bard," serving the needs of an oral tradition that articulates the dominant values of culture, connecting fragmented units of society, and carrying out the role of a tribal story-teller (Fiske& Hartley, 1985, pp. 85-100).  Like the ritual gatherings of our ancestors long ago, we hear and see the re-telling of the day as the clan sits together at the "electronic hearth" (Tichi, 1992, pp. 3-10; Meyrowitz, 1985, p. 252).  Each spectator negotiates their own interpretations while joining the larger community sharing the unified televisual view of the world.

               The rhetorical strategies used in TV news are rather subtle because they are normal practices.  A sense of community emerges through inclusive language and assumptions of shared knowledge about celebrities and events.  For example, Connie Chung introduces the initial report of the Harding/Kerrigan story on January 6, 1994 from the CBS studio saying,  "In Detroit today, someone attacked a US. Olympic figure skater just weeks before the 1994 Winter Olympics.  The skater was rushed to the hospital, the assailant escaped."

               Nancy Kerrigan is never mentioned by name even though a recognizable image of her is superimposed on the screen beside Chung.  This move depends on our shared understanding of Kerrigan's identity.  Since all essential information about the event has already been conveyed in Chung's brief introduction, the rest of the report that follows represents the elaborate production efforts of TV news directed at fulfilling the bardic function of the community.

               Of course the news provides facts about the world.  However, the facts are organized as a traditional form of ethnographic narrative in order to fulfill a greater cultural need to share stories about reality (Bird & Dardenne, 1988, pp. 67-9).  The a priori perception of news overlooks the story as a sign system, organizing cultural codes for values, styles, and virtues concealed in the myths and rituals that embody the manner of telling.  Much more than the day to day facts, the qualities of the structure, " . . . both significant and insignificant--all contribute to the larger symbolic system of the news" (Bird & Dardenne 1988, p. 69).  TV news provides a ritual structure for a tribal tradition--telling stories at regular times, in familiar ways, about familiar topics.  In a contemporary context of an electronically organized society, narrative still provides a basic structure for communication. 

               Continuing the initial report on the Kerrigan incident after Chung's introduction, Jacqueline Adams' narrates an edited sequence of five separate scenes from random time and space.  The images have no immediate connection to the current news event, yet the impression of a smooth and logical narrative is maintained (Nichols, 1981, pp. 80-1).  The scenes establish narrative equilibrium with the visual story set in the competitive world of womenıs Olympic figure skating.  We hear the natural sound from the original broadcast.  Kerrigan is depicted as the image of grace and appeal as the TV sports commentator emphatically says, "beautiful!" over cheers from the audience, and she is symbolized as a hero being awarded a medal.

               Adams' narration moves the story to disequilibrium with witnesses that validate descriptions of the "attack" with a "blunt instrument."  Meanwhile, the audience watches the incongruent images of a radiant Kerrigan bowing to receive a medal for her performance.  The story-telling requirements of TV necessitate a continuous visual element--the audience is watching even when no image exists to reinforce the narration.  The images excite the audience with admiration for Kerrigan as the story provokes outrage at the senseless attack.  The narrator continues explaining that the villain of the story, the assailant escaped.  The escape guarantees that the story will continue in serial form.  Kerrigan is redefined by her role as the victim of violence in a mystery story, and she is a metaphor for goodness.  The evil of random violence represents shared community values evoked through the narrative process.

               Vladimir Propp provides a foundation for narrative analysis.  Propp studied Russian fairy tales and found that the structure of narrative depends upon very specific character functions for the basic components of story-telling (Propp, 1968, p. 19; Kozloff, 1992, pp. 67-72; Berger, 1981, p. 99).  The sequence of events structures the relationships of the character functions (Propp, 1968, pp. 19-21; Berger, 1981, p. 99). Propp's morphology focuses on roles and relationships that maintain the coherent organization of a narrative and help to categorize elements within the structure of a story.  Various roles and relationships (e.g., hero, villain, victim, helper, donor, messenger), typically provide information, magical agents, or transportation that advance a story (Propp, 1968, pp. 24-65).  Some examples follow.

               As demonstrated earlier, Kerrigan was transformed from a hero to a victim. Half way into the 90 second CBS report on January 6, 1994, the video shifts to a witness interview.  A graphic identifies "Joan Ryan, Sportswriter," who speaks (presumably about Kerrigan) by using the phrase, "I heard her say . . . "  Kerrigan's character is radically transformed by Ryan's five second discourse:  "Her dad picked her up in his arms like a little girl . . . and took her away . . . and I heard her say, 'dad, it hurts so much.'"  The connotation points to an innocent, child-like female victim in the arms of a masculine protector.  Despite her heroism and prowess as an athlete, she is now constructed as a dependent, vulnerable, feminine victim role in narrative tradition.

               The next scene in finds Kerrigan's brothers in a car, "rushing to her side near their home outside Boston."  Speaking about Kerrigan's brothers, Jacqueline Adams reports that "news of the attack reminded them immediately of last April's court side assault against tennis champion Monica Seles."  Depending on the context in which she is mentioned, Seles is a floating signifier in popular culture as a female athletic "champion" that also signifies a celebrity victim of violence.  A clip dated April 30, 1993 shows Seles collapsing after being stabbed in the back on the tennis court during a match.  While the narration evokes an established paradigm of a "female athlete as victim," the intertextual reference strengthens Kerrigan's character function in the current narrative. 

               The next image jumps back to the brothers in the car, again making a radical leap in time and space.  Mike Kerrigan says, " . . . that's the first thing I thought of," presumably referring to Monica Seles and suggesting that he is actually participating in the narration begun in the previous sequence. The syntax of his speech implies that he was responding to a direct and leading question.  This does not seem to be the spontaneous reaction of a person concerned about the well being of a family member after such a shocking incident.  Thus, Mike Kerrigan's response may have been manipulated and specifically intended to establish the intertextual reference as a sense-making devise within the story.  The habitus of broadcast jounalists is revealed in practice.

               This 90 second news broadcast moves freely back and forth in time.  Coded as a singular event, images and stories from years past combine with projected implications for the future of this narrative.  The contrivance, manipulation, and structuring of this broadcast builds on cultural myths and convention, and reveals the habitus as a system of values from within the culture of news production.

               By January 12, ABC News reported that the  FBI suspected Tonya Harding's husband Jeff Gillooly and bodyguard Shawn Eckardt were involved in a plot to injure Nancy Kerrigan.  The two men are identified graphically with super-imposed circles standing beside Harding at a welcome-home greeting from fans after she won the US Open competition.  This functions to introduce the notion of Harding as a "false hero" being welcomed home from her victory in Detroit (Propp, 1968, 120-5).  Harding stands between the two suspected men signifying guilt by association.

               Not surprisingly, television news stories incorporate many traditional narrative techniques.  Age, race, and gender roles build identities that link specific elements of communities.  A potent example appears as a section of another report on January 13, 1994 on CBS.  It begins with an extreme close up grease stained hands are operating a socket wrench.  They are a woman's hands indicated by red polish and long, manicured nails.  The next edit cuts to an over the shoulder shot revealing that it is Harding working under the hood of a pick-up truck.  John Blackstone narrates; "Harding herself has always seemed a bit of a misfit in the skating world, a blue collar kid who became a champion."  Harding's former agent, Rosenberg appears and continues this "misfit" discourse by adding "she would be much more comfortable in a pool hall than at a skating lunch."  Harding is designated as low class and culturally beneath others like Nancy Kerrigan that fit the image of the "skating world."

               Where, when, and why did Harding consent to appear before the camera while working on a truck?  The context suggests circumstances not related to the current news story.  What kind of interview questions produced Rosenberg's statements?  Apparently taken out of context,  the habitus of broadcast journalism provides the practice of strategically weaving these examples into the script to support rough, pejorative images of Harding. 

               Broadcast journalism structures stories that emphasize clear distinctions in values while providing a unified, intersubjective vision of the world.  Bourdieu considers that "the social role of culture is to classify people and thus underwrite a stratified society" (Fiske, 1987, p. 266).  The news anchor, for instance has more importance and credibility than a field reporter.  The viewer is essential as the receiver of this expression of society, and is positioned accordingly within the hierarchy of institutional practice.  Each role, including that of the audience, is a practical application of the techniques and technologies of television news that serve the needs of the community.

               For example, Tom Brokaw introduces the report on February 2, 1994, NBC saying, "Harding is losing standing in the court of public opinion according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll."  Animated graphic statistical charts move across the screen with a smiling photo of Harding appearing in the upper left corner.  The poll confirms that most of the people surveyed think that Harding should not be allowed to compete.  This also is confirmed in a January issue of Gallop Poll Monthly suggesting that people generally have made up their minds that Harding was involved in the plot against Kerrigan (Moore & Newport, 1994, pp. 31-2). 

               As an introduction to a news report, these opinion polls reinforce a barrage of negative images from preceding reports.  At best, these statistics are ambiguous, but they do assert a community consensus.  The nature of the surveys themselves explicitly ask for doxa, or opinion and belief (Polkinghorne, 1983, p. 9).  But the habitus recontextualizes this information as if the numbers represented facts rather than opinions.  The consensus expressed in the statistics takes on an internal validity as shared knowledge based in social reality.

              According to Bourdieu, the habitus requires no preconceptions nor expertise other than each person performing as expected to fulfill ones role within a class structure (1993, p. 480).  So, television news is not a conspiracy to produce a particular response to information, but a cultural way of communication among a community of shared values and beliefs.  Without pretense, this is the ordinary way of telling the news--the practical application of communication and technology.

               The eidetic quality of the technologically produced media image is received as a form of direct perception.  People might say, "I saw the president," thus forgetting that what they actually saw was a highly produced, mediated representation of an event shown on TV.  Enhanced by authoritative narration, televisual experience generates a most convincing impression of the truth of the news.  Since broadcast journalism uses "culturally specific story-telling codes" to communicate social values (Bird & Dardenne, 1988, p. 73), doxa--opinions and "what we believe to be true"--can easily be confused with knowledge (Polkinghorne, 1983, p. 9).  Both fiction and non-fiction television use stories based on real life, but the news assumes a literal truth to its representational images (Fiske, 1987, p. 281; Nichols, 1991, p. 128).  The news is received by an audience with a "willing suspension of disbelief" because the "truth" must be a compromise between reality and the narration of the news as a structured, coherent story (Sperry, 1981, p. 298).  Television news depends on rhetorical structures, reified through images of real events and people, to construct a natural vision of the world that will be shared by the community. 

 

 

TV News, Celebrities, and Cultural Capital

               The selection of stories for television news seems natural and of general interest to the public.  Generally, topics in the news are based on current events that are relevant to peoples' lives like politics, economics, unusual or special events, and weather conditions.  The selection of stories must fit certain criteria in order to be considered "newsworthy."  Some news is distinguished by popular appeal such as the criminal investigations involving celebrities like singer Michael Jackson, boxer Mike Tyson, former football player O. J. Simpson, or figure skater Tonya Harding.  After prolonged media attention, these stories might seem insignificant compared with other news that invokes more urgent issues of public concern.  So what is the significance of stories about celebrities in the news?

               When a celebrity or public figure is involved in some event foreign to the conditions for which they are usually known, they commonly attract media attention.  Interest in these stories exploits what Bourdieu called "cultural capital," or the "symbolic power" of myth surrounding a celebrity name (Fiske, 1987, pp. 18-20; O'Sullivan et al. 1994, p. 73).  Broadcasters take advantage of name recognition to excite the public and inflate the issues.  An individual who receives public recognition for something acquires symbolic power in a culture that suggests they possess other qualities of value in society.  As John Fiske says: "Culture is a struggle for meanings as society is a struggle for power (1987, p. 20).  It follows that an entertainer that provides pleasure in one context will command attention in another.  Meanings are continuously negotiated within communities and news events raise issues concerning shared values and beliefs.  When Michael Jackson was accused of child molestation, questions arose about his character and behavior outside his professional role as an entertainer, and public attention was focused on related socially relevant issues.  Other people may be accused of the same crime, but Jackson's cultural capital draws attention to the issues.  The Tonya Harding situation generated questions about the values of amateur athletic competition and the monetary rewards of being a winner.  Another example is the O.J. Simpson murder trial which focused attention on domestic violence, racism and interracial marriage, and questions about social justice and the advantages of wealth in a criminal defense trial.  So, news media exploits the cultural capital of celebrity recognition to combine entertainment and information.

               In fulfillment of Andy Warhol's prophecy that everyone in the future will be famous for 15 minutes (Strate, 1994, p. 20), a celebrity is sometimes created by news exposure.  When a name becomes associated with an event, cultural capital is produced by the media.  Public interest and curiosity is aroused by bizarre events, sensational behavior, or a mysterious crime, and a person linked to a story becomes famous.  Rodney King, for example, became well known as a victim of police brutality through television news exposure.  So, because someone is in the news, they may become a celebrity--a person who is famous for being well known (Boorstin, 1964, p. 74).  Once fame is established, the media can bank on the cultural capital to sustain further interest. Thus, the concept of cultural capital contributes to an understanding of the universal appeal of stories about familiar people. 

               As with Rodney King, one community may share certain beliefs about events that are rejected by another community.  The 1994 Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan narrative reveals the habitus of broadcast journalism and demonstrates how stories are generated in television news.  The construction of a non-fiction narrative in television news like the Nancy Kerrigan incident illustrates how a community tells stories intended to be representations of reality that are ultimately elaborate constructions laden with values and beliefs.

 

Conclusion: Building Community and Habitus

               While broadcast jounalism tries to limit the range of perspectives and interpretations through narrative practices, there is no unified vision of events.  Demonstrated in the way stories are constructed according to shared beliefs and perceptions, the habitus of broadcast journalism reveals general characterisitics of the preconscious structuring of practice within a community.  Habitus defines "community" because it is forgotten history, beliefs, and values that organize practice.  Community is a group of people that share values, beliefs, and have concerns for the mutual well being of all members.  Thus broadcast journalism evokes the "style" of a community through communication, but demonstrates more of the "substance" of a societal institution by fulfilling a contractual function of news reporting.  

               Driven by deadlines and economic pressures, the habitus of broadcast journalism is determined by media technology and everyday practices that structure television news.  Those practices are not unique to the Harding/Kerrigan story nor to any one network, but are the common codes inhabiting the culture of broadcast journalism communication.  That culture is the existential manifestation of the habitus: "defined, simultaneously, by its properties and by the relational properties which it derives from its position in the system of class conditions . . . " that distinguish it from other social institutions (Bourdieu, 1984, pp. 170-2).  As part of the process of building community, the communication practices of broadcast journalists, the nature of the medium, the technology of production, and the cultures and conventions of the viewing public, together embody the multiple perspectives of diverse populations through shared stories.  So, television news production is a community effort at structuring meaning out of the random events in the world into a media context of storytelling. 

               The example of broadcast journalism as an institutional structure could be extended to other social institutions such as churches,  schools and civic organizations.  Ultimately all aspects of community will manifest a unique habitus that will describe the unifying principles of the population, their beliefs and values, structures and practices.

 

 


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