The mass media are an important, if not the most important, factor in the development of free opinion in democracies. That is to say that the media have a specific democratic responsibility (McQuail 1987, 117–118). It is no wonder that, apart from freedom of speech, free journalism, and a free media system, the diversity of media is seen as being the most important condition for the emergence and progression of democracies. A heterogeneous media structure is also seen as being an important condition for the development of a diverse and pluralistic media content, representing a balanced diversity of viewpoints on political issues and opinions. This again is conceived as an important condition in the development of a diverse and pluralistic public opinion and sound comprehension by citizens of political coherences and procedures in democracies.
On the other hand, low competition and too much homogeneity within the media system is seen as a threat to a diverse and pluralistic media content. This notion presumes that ownership concentration has a direct (negative) effect on the content variety of media. However, a pluralistic media structure and competition within the media system alone are no guarantee for the prevention of consonance of media content. This is especially true for nonfictional media content like news.
Causes Of Consonance
Noelle-Neumann and Mathes (1987, 410) define consonance as “uniformity of facts and arguments which do not result from reality but from a choice made by the communicators”. Consequently, among the numerous and different theories of influences on mass media content (see, for example, Shoemaker & Reese 1991), those approaches that deal with the professional role of journalists are most prominent (Fishman 1980). As journalists employ similar professional skills within the process of news production, they tend to select similar issues or events for publication. To put it simply: all journalists write about the same things in the same way. This originates from the fact that, generally speaking, journalists have a similar professional pattern in selecting events for publication. The result is a certain homogeneity (consonance) of news discourse despite there being a pluralistic media system. However, there are striking differences between news cultures of journalists of different types of media and even more between those of different (national) cultures.
The reasons for journalists’ similar professional pattern in selecting events and producing news are manifold. The most important ones are: (1) governing professional principles of news values and interpretation strategies lead to a commonly shared professional understanding of “newsworthiness”; (2) respective professional routines at different types of media (TV, radio, newspapers, etc.) result in a commonly shared professional understanding of what “fits” to a specific type of media and what does not; (3) the standardization of journalistic education makes sure that those governing professional principles and routines are widely accepted within the journalist corps. In general, they are not questioned and are passed on from generation to generation. (4) Furthermore, as a result of the professional necessity for orientation, media and journalists tend to be geared toward each other. Within this process of professional co-orientation, prestige media like, for example, leading national quality newspapers play the role of an opinion leader for journalists. Both phenomena, co-orientation among journalists and opinion leaders among prestige media, further contribute to the consonance of media content.
Other causes of media consonance arise from aspects which are inherent in the media system: (5) as media/journalists rely heavily on the messages and news investigated and edited by news agencies and wires (for example, Associated Press [AP], Reuters, or Deutsche Presse Agentur [DPA]), they very often use this kind of ready-made news material and adopt it without any changes. Thus, the news material of news agencies and wires are a further component of the emergence of media consonance.
Another factor, (6) public relations (PR), increasingly influences the journalistic process of news production (Baerns 1985; Turk 1986; Turow 1989). PR produces readymade news material and, thus, further enhances the consonance of media content. In particular, communicators from the political and economic spheres of society increasingly aim to control and homogenize their communication output. Through the help of spin doctors and PR consultants, many of whom are former journalists and media people and thus familiar with the needs and requirements of the media, politicians and managers aim to offer journalists perfectly styled news. This leads to a greater control of messages and content through the source of a message. The less time and fewer personnel at hand in the editorial room, the greater the chance of PR material (like, for example, press releases) being published in the media. This is especially true in times of media economic crises, when editorial rooms are short-staffed and editorial responsibilities are outsourced, meaning the media rely heavily on professional PR material.
Finally, apart from the classical professional principles of news production mentioned above, Herman and Chomsky (1988) additionally emphasize another possibly important cause for the consonance of media content, in particular of political news: (7) a certain interdependency between the political and economic system on the one hand and the media system on the other (see also Dreier 1982; Gerbner et al. 1982). Those inter-dependencies undermine the freedom of the press and the development of a free public opinion. They are most evident in totalitarian systems but also exist in democracies, although less obviously. Herman and Chomsky (1988) drew on the analysis of American media coverage of Nicaragua and El Salvador, which was found to be extremely one-sided. While at that time the American media consonantly portrayed the socialist Sandinistas and their regime in Nicaragua negatively, they kept silent in the case of El Salvador, which suffered from the same political misery but was governed by a totalitarian military regime supported by the US government.
Consequences Of Consonance
Media critics such as Chomsky (1989) argue that the consonant news of the American media brought about a factitious and simulated consonant public opinion tamed in the interest of the political and economic elites. The general concept of media consonance is related to the concept of homogeneity of public opinion: it is assumed that the higher the degree of media consonance, the higher the homogeneity of public opinion. As agendasetting theory would suggest, the consonance of the media with regard to a single agenda of issues will in turn be reflected in a similarly consonant public agenda. It indicates that public opinion is highly influenced by the media agenda represented within media news. The supposed correspondence of media consonance and homogeneity of public opinion figured prominently in Noelle-Neumann’s (1993) development of the theory of the “spiral of silence,” which among other things presumes that alldominant consonant media content is picked up on by the public as the dominant and/ or the majority’s opinion. In this regard, consonance of media content with a high degree of consonance of issues and opinions consequently is considered to be an obstruction to the development of a pluralistic opinion within a democratic society. The more complex and diverse a modern democratic society is, the more complex and diverse the need for the public (opinion) to be represented in/through the media. In short: media consonance is considered a threat to democracy. This makes consonance of media content a most popular object of research.
Distinguishing Consonance And Focusing
Although the general concept of content consonance comprises both consistency of issues and topics as well as of opinions and interpretations, Eilders (2002) suggests a terminological differentiation: she describes a correspondence of issues as “focusing” and a correspondence of opinion as “consonance.” This allows more detailed empirical analysis of consonance of media content and a more analytical understanding of the phenomenon. This is important and most relevant, as studies show that focusing (of issues) in the news does not necessarily lead to consonance (of opinions) among the media. Her own content analysis on German quality newspapers and the work of the American researcher Guido Stempel (1985) show that, although the media often concentrate on the same issues and topics, they editorialize or comment on them differently (Eilders 2002). This is due to the respective ideological profiles and editorial positions of newspapers, which generally govern rather the specific framing of an issue than the selection of an issue for publication. However, Eilders even found variation from this rule.
Furthermore, Eilders (2002) calls for a systematic consideration of the time dimension when dealing with the concept of media consonance, which means that one can only speak of media consonance if, for example, different newspapers report on the same issues or express the same opinion on an issue at the same time. This is increasingly relevant, as content stability over time is considered to be an important condition for media effects. However, research has not yet developed a commonly shared consensus on what exactly should be understood as high/strong/dangerous or low/weak/safe consonance of media content. Hence, a clear perception of a normative degree of content consonance (in terms of quantity and/or duration/continuance) does not exist.
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