Negotiating news: A study of the social construction of news realities

Date of Completion

January 2008


Psychology, Social|Sociology, General|Mass Communications




In this dissertation, I examine how people engage with the news media as they build and support their knowledge of the world outside their immediate social environments. Based on in-depth interview data with 47 people, I argue that the news media is a cultural resource that people use to think and act in everyday life. As a cultural resource, people use as tools the mental impressions, or what I call symbolic meanings that they associate with different news outlets as they construct and sustain their awareness and understanding of the social world. People then justify their social realities with lay theories that serve as cognitive "blueprints" as they interpret and process a chaotic and contradictory news environment. As news "elsewheres" people identify the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and the Internet as separate news spheres, which they use to quell concerns that may arise should they feel unable to establish a grounded news reality through traditional, mainstream commercialized news outlets (e.g., newspapers, network news, cable news). ^ As I conclude, I raise two broader sociological considerations. First I question what my respondents' narratives suggest about the news media's power over producing, transmitting, defining and constituting the social world (i.e., symbolic power). Dominant social institutions representing the state, economy, and religion, as well as social systems of racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity, use the mass media to wield their symbolic powers, inform social reality, and control publics. How people negotiate and manage their news realities speaks towards both the entrenchment of dominant symbolic powers and the threats they face as they use the media to define and constitute social reality according to their interests and viewpoints. Second, I suggest how social theorists may use the insights I develop here to theorize about people's socially constructed understandings of a plethora of social phenomena, such as crime and imprisonment, inequality, immigration, social movements, and other issues presented in the media's vast terrain. In so doing, I argue towards conceptualizing the media as diffuse, where media discourse infiltrate every minutia of contemporary, industrialized, post-modern societies, and inform much of what we know about many public issues and phenomena. ^