Scandalization in the news refers to the apparent tendency for news content to focus on material exposing the foibles and misdemeanors of fellow citizens, especially the rich, famous, and powerful. Scandals themselves have an ancient pedigree. The original Greek terms, the noun “skandalon” and the verb “skandalizein,” refer to a spring-trap for prey, recalling the Indo-Germanic root “skand,” meaning to spring or leap. “Scandal” was used in a figurative way in the Christian Bible to describe a trap, an obstacle, or a cause of moral stumbling.
Communication scholars have focused on understanding the relationship between scandal and the media. They have developed explanations related to the transformations wrought partly by changes in communication technology, including the development of a highly competitive news market and new forms of visibility and “publicness” in the contemporary world, creating opportunities as well as risks for public figures. They have linked these explanations to those derived from social theory, explored most thoroughly in John Thompson’s work (2000).
Communication researchers have examined a number of factors contributing to the focus of news media on scandal and particularly political scandals, namely, news economy, culture, and ideology. Scholars also have debated the reasons for the prevalence in the late twentieth century of political scandal reporting, with its normative issues concerning the wider impact on trust in politicians and implications for the health of democratic politics.
News Economy, Culture, And Ideology
Economics have been considered a primary driver of scandalization in the news. Protess et al. (1991) attribute the development of the investigative tradition in American media after Watergate to market considerations. In a fragmented and fiercely competitive news market, scandal sells. Scandals provide the mix of ingredients found to attract audiences. They are vivid, racy, dramatic, and compelling. However, there is also evidence that scandal coverage creates relatively small shifts in audience size, inflating readership and audience viewing figures in the context of a stagnating if not diminishing news audience (Sabato et al. 2001).
One of the configuring elements of news culture is the set of news values driving coverage of events. The media’s news values have long been skewed toward reporting the unusual and negative, and scandal news can be considered a subset of negative reporting. It generally consists in an initial labeling of behavior considered transgressive of social norms, phases of revelation, expression of disapproval, dramatization, and, finally, outcomes. The response contributes to the constitution of the scandal and takes the form of language expressed in public implying that the action is shameful or disgraceful.
To narrate the story, journalists try to create a coherent whole, ordering facts and events within a cogent logic of space and time adjusted to the rhythms of media production. First, to create compelling, meaningful stories, characters are identified in terms of villains and victims. Second, a plot or storyline is created. The plot is related, third, to drama in which moral language is used to characterize the wrongdoing for the audience. Scandal stories establish patterns of the acceptable, creating a contemporary form of morality tale. Scandal news mediates values through the exposition of wrongdoing and its consequences. Like morality tales, news about scandal implicitly recommends certain kinds of choice and action to members of the audience.
News culture in part constitutes and constrains what might be considered scandalous. For example, the abundance of political sexual scandal news in Anglo-American reporting is not because their politicians are more prone to certain kinds of behavior, but because of different assumptions about morality and the roles of journalists in different societies (Canel & Sanders 2006).
Scandal reporting fits an ideological understanding of news as a “journalism of outrage” and journalists’ roles as comprising a fourth estate, where reporters claim to seek to reveal wrongdoing and bring about change (Protess et al. 1991). It is the kind of journalism for which Watergate stands as the paradigm. Scandal disclosure is considered as a subset of investigative journalism. Often presented as a cornerstone of liberal democracies (Schultz 1998), the watchdog function of the fourth estate has developed as an informal regulatory principle for the practice of journalism in democracies since the Enlightenment. What we might call the high-minded view of scandal coverage considers it to be part of the press watchdog function with positive consequences for liberal democracy.
Reasons For Scandalization Of Political News
Notwithstanding this lofty vision of the purpose of scandal reporting, there is a considerable body of research suggesting that in the 1990s the news media became particularly fixated on political scandal coverage to the exclusion of more serious political reporting (Tumber & Waisbord 2004). Apart from the economic and ideological factors already referred to, there are several reasons for this. First, reporting scandal upsets the sometimes cozy world of political reporting, disrupting the normal pattern of what Bennett (1990) has described as the “indexing” of coverage to the range of views expressed by mainstream government sources. The reporter can be more autonomous and seem more powerful.
Second, the potential for scandal increases in an environment where all public figures must radically “go public” and the realm of the private seems to disappear from view. Thompson’s social theory of scandal (2000) locates the power of political scandals in their ability to damage reputation and undermine trust, both of which comprise the necessary symbolic capital of contemporary public figures. Political scandal strikes at the root of symbolic power because of the conditions of mediated visibility in which public figures must operate.
Third, reporting of politics takes place in a crowded field of news and entertainment outlets vying for the audience’s attention. Scandal is often more entertaining than much political reporting, puncturing the carefully contrived image and performance of public figures. Political scandal provides a moment when politicians suddenly seem real.
Finally, the media have an expanded capacity to record symbolic content – phone intercepts, Internet postings of original documents, the televising of President Clinton’s claim that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” – giving them a central role in creating the compelling narratives of political scandal and thus becoming powerful independent actors in the political system. The Clinton–Lewinsky saga showed, as Watergate and the Iran–Contra scandals had before, that political scandals can become global affairs and even the defining event of a politician’s career.
It can be argued that political scandals provide a yardstick for the openness and accessibility of a specific political culture or, on the contrary, destroy the foundations of rational conversation about politics, turning citizens into the disillusioned spectators of a freak show. Reporting that examines every nook and cranny of a politician’s private life can, in the words of some American critics of the phenomenon, turn democracy into a kind of “peepshow” or soap opera (Sabato et al. 2001). It is certainly doubtful whether a constant diet of sexual scandal reporting contributes to the Habermasian ideal public sphere as the orienting place of unfettered, public rational discourse.
Scandal News And Civil Society
Scholars have advanced various approaches to understanding the apparent growth of scandalization in the news and its impact on civil society. One view suggests that scandals entertain, divert the populace, and cause inconvenience to public figures, but have no enduring consequences. This is difficult to sustain even on a parsimonious definition of “consequences.” A second view considers the proliferation of scandal coverage as testimony to the decline of the public sphere (Patterson 1993). Survey data in liberal democracies indicate deepening public distrust of government and low esteem for politicians, and this is taken as grounds for considering that political scandals corrode trust and the health of the public sphere. Critics see three processes at work, combining to convert politics into a spectator sport for a cynical public: privatization of the public sphere, i.e., distinctions are no longer drawn between what constitutes private affairs and public ones (Stanyer & Wring 2004); tabloidization of news and the growth of infotainment, i.e., issue-based, analytical reporting is replaced by sensational journalism (Sparks & Tulloch 2000) and the news is driven by entertainment values; and personalization of politics, i.e., the decline of political parties and of the importance of ideology leads to an increasing emphasis on the personalities of public figures rather than the policies they advocate (Brants 1998).
There is some evidence that an increased diet of scandals is correlated with a growing disillusionment with politics (Kepplinger 1996). However, given the difficulty of establishing a causal connection between political scandals and loss of public confidence in politics and politicians, it could be argued that political scandals are symptoms of more deep-seated democratic malaises rather than the underlying causes of them. Furthermore, cross-national studies of scandalization in the news have alerted scholars to the danger of generalizing about news tendencies and effects on the evidence of one cultural context (Canel & Sanders 2006).
While economics and ideology may be two primary drivers, scholars have also examined scandal news as not only an economic or ideological epiphenomenon but also a cultural form (Erhlich 1996; Lull & Hinerman 1997). Scandal news discloses information perceived as negative about an individual and/or institution, gives publicity to this information, and places it in a narrative frame. In doing this, the media provide some knowledge of facts, but crucially they enact the drama of moral agency in stories that can become the stuff of social memory. The extraordinary ordinariness that scandals capture, their airing of moral dilemmas in personalized narratives, make them into particularly engaging events but, for these reasons too, on the whole, localized affairs. This is part of the reason why the form, style, and impact of scandalization in the news can be usefully examined by comparative research, since they arise in and out of specific cultural contexts that are extremely influential in shaping the precise features of scandal and its impact.
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