Myth is a concept used to explore the storytelling practices of journalists. From this perspective, myth is not a false belief or an untrue story, nor is it contrasted with reality. Myth is a story that a society produces by drawing on archetypal figures and forms to express prevailing beliefs, ideals, and values. Journalists appear to apply these fundamental forms and narratives as they compose their stories.
By extension, myth is also useful for examining the social role of the news media. Because myth is an essential aspect of social life, the news media fulfill the roles and functions that myth-making institutions fulfilled in ancient societies. Journalists, like ancient storytellers, offer accounts of the origins of things. They tell stories that instruct and inform. They present portrayals of heroes and villains. They warn of disaster and disease. They offer dramas of order and disorder, of justice affirmed and justice denied. In doing so, the research suggests, journalists’ stories fulfill the social role of myths.
Study of news as myth has a rich tradition. Scholars of American studies in the mid-twentieth century, such as Henry Nash Smith and R. W. B. Lewis, made connections among myth and modern cultural forms. Writers such as Mircea Eliade, in Myths, dreams and mysteries (1960) and other works, extended such inquiries by linking myth to modern mass media narratives, including news. The French philosopher and writer Roland Barthes explored the ideological implications of news as myth in Mythologies (1957), arguing that news, as myth, is political speech that attempts to make a particular ideology seem beyond question.
Based in part on these early, disparate works, researchers have adapted myth to study the role of journalists in society. For analytical purposes, the research might fall into two distinct but overlapping traditions. One emphasizes social and cultural links between news and myth. American cultural studies have produced notable analyses of the capacity of news as myth to express culture. For example, James Carey (1975) understood the news story as a dramatic presentation of a shared reality. Reading a newspaper, in his evocative metaphor, is less like sending or gaining information and more like attending a mass, a setting where one learns nothing new but witnesses a particular view of the world portrayed and confirmed. The works of journalists are symbolic narratives that represent cultural values and beliefs one may affirm or contest. Researchers have used Carey’s work to study the mythological role of journalism (Lule 2001).
A second tradition of research on news and myth, following Barthes, emphasizes political and ideological dimensions of journalists’ stories. These scholars argue that news, like myth, has a primary function to create, shape, and sustain an ideological order. News and myth are inherently social and political narratives that support the status quo and maintain social order. Much of this work has come out of the British cultural studies tradition. Stuart Hall (1982), for example, found that news, like myth, draws from the prevailing codes of a culture, so that writers unknowingly maintain the dominant ideology. Just as the tellers of a myth may be unaware of the basic elements they use to generate their particular version, Hall says, so journalists may be unaware of the frameworks and ideological inventories that shape their stories.
Studies of news and myth continue in these research veins. Scholars have found, in particular, that the news reporting of terrorism is fertile ground for exploring news and myth. Overall, however, the research has remained isolated in pockets of cultural studies, American studies, political science, and sociology. Myth is understood in many different ways and the research has not yet produced an organizing framework to encompass these varied approaches (Coman 2005). Yet study of news as myth offers rich opportunities and can situate journalists in the long line of storytellers and scribes that have always informed human societies.
- Barthes, R. (1957). Mythologies. Paris: Seuil.
- Carey, J. W. (1975). A cultural approach to communication. Communication, 2, 1–22.
- Carey, J. W. (ed.) (1988). Media, myths, and narratives: Television and the press. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Coman, M. (2005). News stories and myth – the impossible reunion? In E. Rothenbuhler & M. Coman (eds.), Media anthropology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 111–120.
- Eliade, M. (1960). Myths, dreams and mysteries (trans. P. Mairet). New York: Harper.
- Hall, S. (1982). The rediscovery of “ideology”: Return of the repressed in media studies. In M. Gurevitch, T. Bennett, J. Curran, & J. Woollacott (eds.), Culture, society, and the media. London: Methuen, pp. 56 – 90.
- Knight, G., & Dean, T. (1982). Myth and the structure of news. Journal of Communication, 32, 144– 158.
- Lule, J. (2001). Daily news, eternal stories: The mythological role of journalism. New York: Guilford.