Volume 12, Number 2 (July 2015)
Author: Dr. Jesse Owen Hearns-Branaman
In this paper I formulate a Hyperrealist epistemology of media using the work of Jean Baudrillard to radicalize previous Antirealist work on the media. I define Antirealist epistemology as research that brackets out consideration that media can represent reality, either arguing explicitly against the possibility or ignoring the issue altogether, including most Saussurian-influenced post-structuralism and Schutz-influenced social constructionism. Counter to this, a Hyperrealist epistemology would take the position that the Reality that news media portrays is not Reality in the Realist sense but, instead, signs of Reality, or in Baudrillardian terms the Hyperreal. (Instead of putting ‘reality’ in square quotes, a typical Antirealist approach, I will capitalise it when referring explicitly to the Realist conception of Reality. The same will be done for Hyperreal/ist/ism and Antireal/ist/ism.)
This in part to better define Hyperrealist epistemology from constructivism and thus defend it from contemporary attacks by Critical Realists (i.e Lau 2008, 2013; Mancias 1998; Wright 2011). For example, according to Manicas, ‘post-structuralism,’ with its “battle-cry ‘there is nothing outside the text’” results in “not merely a relativism” but also “an epistemological nihilism in which truth is an illusion” (Manicas 1998: 316). In a criticism of constructivism in general, Lau (2013) tries to repair it by more clearly defining ways in which reality can be constructed both ‘through’news media and also ‘by’news. He argues that the point of social constructionist perspectives, one that is not emphasized enough, is that they “argue specifically that reality is constructed by news as a result of the characteristics of the news-making process,” and not simply theoretical discussions of reality construction “in general” (Lau 2013: 887). Hyperrealist epistemology as well fully acknowledges the difference between construction through and by media while not relying on attempts to reconnect the media’s Reality to Reality. This will be further explicated in this paper through a radicalization of the theories of Tuchman and Hall which focus on the news-making process itself, the specifics of which were not examined by Baudrillard.
Furthermore, discussion of bias and objectivity in the media tends to stay trapped in a loop, arguing that journalists need to take more care in reporting the truths and providing ‘both’ sides of the argument. On the other side is the Antirealist trend which ignores concepts such as bias and balance. This essay, then, also is an attempt to reinvigorate the debate on bias and balance in the media by bringing the highly influential mainstream research of Tuchman and Hall face-to-face with Baudrillardian Hyperrealism.
Baudrillard’s Hyperrealist epistemology will be introduced following a brief examination of Daniel Boorstin’s concept of the pseudo-event, a theory that is more focused on news media instead of the media-general focus of Baudrillard. We will then move on to examine two dominant Antirealist epistemological positions, firstly is that of Tuchman’s research into news media production and her ‘strategic rituals’ (Tuchman 1972, 1978) and secondly Hall’s ‘Encoding/decoding’ model and the respective concept of ‘codes’ (Hall 1980). Despite the contemporaneous generation of these three thinkers’ ground breaking ideas, they are not often, if ever, brought together, a long overdue exercise which will help push the study of media epistemology further.
II. Boorstin and the Pesudo-Event
One major influence on the development of Baudrillard’s hyperrealism is Boorstin’s concept of the pseudo-event. Boorstin derives this idea from an examination of the historical changes surrounding the development of news media, a stronger focus than that of Baudrillard.
Before the mid-nineteenth century, news media were largely reactive; news was published when events actually happened (Boorstin 1961: 7-8). Boorstin gives several examples of people espousing that the causal relationship between news media content and reality was of a more spiritual nature, evoking Divine Providence, the Hand of God, or even the Devil (ibid). This changed with the rise of mass popular press in that responsibility for making the world interesting” was shifted “from God to the newspaperman” (ibid: 8). This conception lays an interesting parallel between the rise of the Enlightenment and the change in the ‘providence’ of news media content; As people’s belief in the spiritual causes of events was shaken, the scientific or rational causes then became the basis.
This new rational basis for evidence, however, did not last for long, due to our expectation for the production of more and more news. Boorstin lays the blame squarely at the feet of the audience: “it is we who keep them in businesses and demand that they fill our consciousness with novelties” (ibid: 9). Instead of successful journalists being the ones who transmitted the more accurate facts, they became the “one who can find a story, even if there is no earthquake or assassination or civil war. If he cannot find a story, then he must make one” (ibid: 8). Thirst for knowledge resulted in the creation of more knowledge, one might say, but what exactly is the nature of these new types of news events?
Boorstin labels these as ‘pseudo-events’ and defines them with four characteristics. Firstly, it is an event that “is not spontaneous” in that it has been “planned, planted or incited” by an interested party, in opposition to an accident or natural disaster (Boorstin 1961: 11). Furthermore, pseudo-events are “planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced” and has the “convenience” of the news media and its wide-spread reportage as one of its main concerns (ibid). Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, “[i]ts relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous” and that the interest in it “arises largely from this very ambiguity” (ibid). Peoples’ interest in the ‘event’ now extends from a discussion of the event’s nature, “in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives” (ibid). Lastly, in the end it tends to be nothing more than a “self-fulfilling prophecy”; the celebration of the “distinguished hotel” is what makes the hotel “distinguished” (ibid: 12), or the interview with the ‘influential’ personality further enshrines their influence.
An example would be from a business that wants to increase its profits; instead of improving the quality of its services or goods, it embarks on an advertising campaign for an anniversary or other human-made events in order to get more publicity. (In Baudrillarian terms, instead of increasing the ‘use’ and/or ‘exchange’ value of their product, the hotel instead generates ‘sign’ value via the media [see Baudrillard 1970]). The media cover the anniversary, getting the business into the news for free, and create this event not out of ‘usable’ and ‘exchangeable’ reality, such as increasing the quality of service or redecorating, but of the PR professional’s manipulation of ‘signs’ and the codes of the media by creating such a brand.
Recent research supports Boorstin. in Gauthier’s (2005) examination of New York Times cover stories over a year, over 95% of the news stories he identified originated from human activity, 76% of them from ‘verbal manifestations’ alone. How many of these human-created events and verbal manifestations would have happened without the news media there to cover it? Certainly, a very large percentage of speeches from politicians are given with the media in mind, they would not go on a political talk show if there was no television. This is, in a way, to give us a ‘baseline’ or a test for the ‘reality’ of news media: would the ‘event’ covered have happened if the news media were not there to record it?
This therefore allows us to argue that no matter the Real causal ‘structures’ behind democracy and politics, the important thing to be critical of is if that statement or that action is one that exists not simply for media coverage, but within themedia itself. Modern events like the Egyptian protests in the spring of 2011, as well as an increasing number of protests elsewhere, do not simply depend heavily on media coverage to spread their message, but are structured in such a way as to get media coverage (Hearns-Branaman 2012). The pressure the Egyptian protesters occupying Tahrir Square put to force a change in their government was only partially based on the physical occupation of the public space; it was the sustained, media-centric aspects of the event that were conveyed around the world. Without the cameras there to broadcast it the protests would have taken an entirely different shape and had a different, probably far more violent outcome (ibid).
Molotch & Lester’s (1974) typology of news stories is also interesting to examine in contrast with Boorsin’s idea of ‘pesudo-events’. They define in four types of events (ibid): 1) Events that are planned and promoted by same actors should be considered as ‘routine’; 2) an event planned by one and promoted by another is a ‘scandal’; 3) a completely unplanned event is an ‘accident,’ and 4) an unplanned event accidentally promoted by another is ‘serendipity’. Thus, an event such as a press conference or a speech by a politician is ‘routine,’ release of incriminating documents a ‘scandal,’ an airplane crash or hurricane is an ‘accident,’ and a reporter happening to be at a restaurant and noticing a politician having a romantic dinner with a woman not his wife would be ‘serendipity.’ The constructionist theoretical basis for their argument is the universalist view that across all societies and throughout all time there is some agent working to “mak[e] available to citizens a range of occurrences from which to construct a sense of public time” (ibid: 103), and thus leaves out the effects of media technology, effects that are highly necessary to understand mass media.
If we compare this categorization with that of Boorstin and Baudrillard, we get interesting results. We need to ask why press conferences, events quite often created not to react to an event but to create an event, and entirely with the media in mind, are given ‘routine’ status by Molotch & Lester. This differs greatly from news such as stock market reports or, as in early newspapers, arrivals of ships and cargo prices as explored by Boorstin. The latter actually have a more direct referent, the real movement of objects, unlike press conferences or politician’s speeches.
Baudrillard (1976) takes on Boorstin’s concept, later asking us to consider if an event is truly ‘real,’ would it have happened without any media being present to broadcast or record it? Trade would continue with or without newspapers (although perhaps not as efficiently), lightning would still strike, airplanes would still crash. But political speeches, structured debates, even many protests, are all events that would cease to exist if the media wasn’t there to record it. The fact that many pseudo-events have become ‘routine’ and Realistic content for news media shows how deep into the logic of Hyperrealism much news has actually become.
III. Baudrillardian Hyperrealism
Baudrillard’s basic epistemological thesis is that, due to the implosion of the medium and the message, and due to much of media being based upon self-referential pseudo-events internal to the media, what we consider to be ‘Real’ has now changed. His epistemological work on McLuhan’s ‘Medium is the message’ (McLuhan 1964) leads him to conclude that “It is by the technological support that each ‘message’ is in the first place transitive towards another ‘message,’ and not towards a human reality” (Baudrillard 1967: 42).
Baudrillard gives a historical illustration of this, inspired by that of Benjamin (1936). Baudrillard defines three era, or ‘orders,’ of simulacra, which he ties to “the successive mutations of the law of value” (Baudrillard 1976: 50). Before the Renaissance we had the ‘obligatory sign’: In societies based on ceremony and rank “signs are not arbitrary” and their “circulation is restricted” as they are “protected by a prohibition which ensures their total clarity and confers an unequivocal status on each” (ibid). “The arbitrariness of the sign begins when […] the signifier starts to refer to a disenchanted universe of the signified, the common denominator of the real world, towards which no-one any longer has the least obligation: (ibid).
Post-Renaissance signs are ‘emancipated signs,’ correlated to the emancipation of class and the rise of democratic ideals (ibid: 50-51). Thus in the period from the Renaissance to the Industrial revolution we have “overt competition at the level of signs of distinction” in the form of fashion (something that cannot exist pre-Renaissance due to the tight control on signification) and instead of the production of signs being based on reciprocal social obligations, tradition, and class, they now proliferate based on “demand” (ibid: 51).
Baudrillard refers to this period as that of the ‘counterfeit’ not because pre-Renaissance signs are changed, but because emancipated signs, being “non-discriminatory,” “relieved of every constraint,” and “universally available,” have also become free of “reference to the real” and to “nature” (ibid: 51). Thus, the emancipated sign must simulate the ‘obligations’ of traditional signs and “giv[e] the appearance that it is bound to the world” (ibid), or else they will hold no resonance with people. Baudrillard draws parallels between the adventures of the sign with that of class and labour: “just as the ‘free’ worker is only free to produce equivalents, the ‘free and emancipated’ sign is only free to produce equivalent signifieds” (ibid). Baudrillard’s empirical example for this is the development of stucco in architecture during the Renaissance, in which it was used “in the imitation of nature”, “embrac[ing] all forms, imitate[ing] all materials,” and becoming “generally equivalent for all the other” signs (ibid: 51-52).
The next order of simulacra, corresponding to Benjamin’s ‘age of mechanical reproduction’ (Benjamin 1936), arises during the Industrial Revolution, featuring “signs with no caste tradition, that will never have known restriction on their status, and which will never have to be counterfeits, since from the outset they will be products on a gigantic scale” (Baudrillard 1976: 55). Mass production of objects solves the problems caused by their counterfeiting. Instead of the relationship between objects being based on the original versus the counterfeit (i.e. real grapes vs. stucco grapes), the relationship becomes that of “equivalence and indifference” as objects become “indistinct simulacra of one another” (ibid). Baudrillard says that Benjamin’s analysis “shows that reproduction absorbs the process of production, changes its goals, and alters the status of the product and the producer” (Baudrillard 1976: 55). In this order of simulacra, objects are “conceived according to their very reproducibility, their diffraction from a generative core called a ‘model’ […] There is no more counterfeiting of an original […] and no more pure series […]; there are models from which all forms proceed according to modulated differences”. (ibid: 56) Thus, the result of “this process of reproducibility” is that the Real becomes “not only that which can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: the hyperreal” (ibid: 73). Baudrillard’s definition of the Real is “that of which it is possible to provide an equivalent reproduction” (ibid), and thus to “dissimulate is to feign not to have what one has,” therefore “feigning or dissimulating leaves the reality principle intact: the difference is always clear, it is only masked” (Baudrillard 1978b: 5).
Realist conceptions of the truth rely on the premise that you can prove something wrong or right, that evidence can be provided to prove the speaker’s comment was wrong and therefore was lying. Conversely, in a Hyperreal conception, “To simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t,” and thus “simulation threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’” (ibid). For the topic at hand, we can thus say that the Realist actions of journalists (quoting and interviewing, providing ‘both’ sides, live reporting) function to restore the ‘reality principle’ by creating simulations of ‘reality’ instead of functioning to verify and distribute ‘true’ information, therefore their normative role would be largely undermined.
Furthermore, he argues that many news media events are “produced as artifacts from the technical manipulation of the medium and its coded elements […] It is this generalized substitution of the code for the reference that defines mass media consumption” (Baudrillard 1970: 92). ‘Reality’ has now become simply models of reality. Simulation “is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality” (Baudrillard 1978b: 2). News events become a simulation of an event “in the sense that they are inscribed in advance in the decoding and orchestration rituals of the media” and “function as a set of signs dedicated exclusively to their recurrence as signs, and no longer to their ‘real’ goal at all” (Baudrillard 1978a: 42). Again, connecting this to journalism, the ‘he said, she said’ motif and the presence of ‘competing truth claims’ act only to simulate that one or the other can possibly be true and that we are rational beings who can make that determination, both which are inherent in the ‘decoding and orchestration rituals’ of news media. Furthermore, he adds (ibid: 32): “Facts no longer have any trajectory of their own, they rise at the intersection of the models; a single fact may even be engendered by all the models at once. This anticipation, this precession, this short-circuit, this confusion of the fact with its model […] is what each time allows for all the possible interpretations, even the most contradictory – all are true, in the sense that their truth is exchangeable, in the image of the models from which they process, in a generalized cycle. We can thus see that this conception of ‘truth’ as extending from models-as-truth within the media deeply problematizes the idea that access to more information will allow us to make better choices in politics, society and the rest, for much of that information has no reflection to Real life, but instead to signs of Real life”.
Baudrillard seems to believe there is/was truth out there; we just cannot access it anymore because our modern epistemology is Hyperreal. Just as advertising and consumerism does not depend on truth to sell its goods, “[m]ass communication is beyond truth and falsehood […] All the great humanistic criteria of value, all those of a civilization of moral, aesthetic, practical judgment, fade away on our system of images and signs” (Baudrillard 1975: 72).
So what is the actual function of news media then? “All media and the official news service only exist to maintain the illusion of actuality – of the reality of the stakes, of the objectivity of the facts” (Baudrillard 1978a: 71). This is also expressed by Žižek: “one should not forget to include in the content of an act of communication the act itself, since the meaning of each act of communication is also to reflexively assert that it is an act of communication” (Žižek 2006: 21). Thus, the ‘stakes’ are not purely political-economic in nature but epistemological; not that we have to take a side in a political-economic struggle, but that the struggle itself it what is important, for if it is belief in this struggle that maintains the system.
While some would view a news story about, for example, one political party criticizing another as a ‘elite transaction’ irrelevant to the larger populace and democracy in general and only reflecting these party’s differing political-economic bases and not any fundamental policy differences (i.e. Curran 2000, Sparks 2000), Baudrillard’s perspective would view it as simply reinforcing that this discourse, no matter what its base, exists to simulate multi-party democracy and a possible left-right binary. The purpose of news reports about movements of abstract units of currency around the world, the rise and fall of stock markets and other financial news is not to inform people what exactly is going on, but to reinforce that they are important. Thus, we can argue that the news media does not function to inform people of ‘facts’ but to maintain the simulation that those facts (and not other ones) are ‘real’ and central to our lives.
IV. Tuchman and News Production Rituals
Unlike social scientists, newsmen have a limited repertoire with which to define and defend their objectivity […] [They] must make immediate decisions concerning validity reliability, and ‘truth’ in order to meet the problems imposed by the nature of his task […] Processing news leaves no time for reflexive epistemological examination”. (Tuchman 1972: 662). Gaye Tuchman’s seminal work examines how the routines and rituals of the news media have little to do with producing an actual Realist account of the world. I will show below this is quite similar to Baudrillard’s Hyperrealist theory in that the effect of Reality is produced via the news media’s orchestration rituals, or in Tuchman’s words, their construction of a ‘web of facticity,’ that is, mutually self-supporting ‘facts.’
Tuchman’s (1972, 1978) work examined how the work routines of journalists structures the way in which they select their information. Her productive metaphor is that journalists are less ‘hunters and gatherers,’ going out daily to find what is happening and then brining the information back home, but more like ‘fishermen,’ sitting by the same pond each day, catching the same types of fish over and over, only venturing out when the pickings are slim (Tuchman 1978). For instance, information that is deemed the most credible is that which comes from official governmental sources, therefore that information (often the easiest to get access to) is gathered before other sources, privileging the government’s spin on events. The relationship of this information to reality is only a small part of the equation, its legitimacy is more important because legitimacy is easier and quicker to judge than validity (ibid). Her results have been replicated elsewhere, for instance, Mindich (1998) found a common set of practices and procedures that journalists learn that are supposed to make their work ‘objective.’ I will now review two of the strategic rituals she identified.
(i) Use of direct quotations:
As Tuchman puts it, they are used so that “a reporter may remove his opinions from the story by getting others to say what he himself thinks” (Tuchman 1972: 668) and thus giving the impression of Realist objectivity. As Bennett notes, this is part of the ‘documentary method’ of reporting in which “only the information that they have witnessed and only the facts that credible sources have confirmed” can be included (Bennett 2005: 196-197). His critique is that “in practice the method creates a trap for journalists confronted with staged political performances” which creates a paradox in that “The more perfectly an event is staged, the more documentable and hence reportable it becomes” (ibid: 197). In other words the ‘Reality’ of this might, in fact, be a ‘pseudo event’-derived reality. Also, despite the apparently high level of Reality built into this, there is always the potential for selectively quoting people. Furthermore, it privileges those who speak in sound-bites, and lowers the standard for those who cannot or do not like to, and forces complex issues to be ‘explained’ in short sound-bites.
(ii) The ‘he said, she said’ method of presenting quotes from more than one side (usually two) to show balance.
This is open to a lot of criticism in the field. Patterson, talking about political news, notes this is a “common technique” which “use[s] a politician’s opponents to discredit his claims or performance. When a politician makes a statement or takes action, they turn to his adversaries to attack it” (Patterson 1998: 26). The weakness of this is that the criticism is made “not by a careful assessment of this claim or action, but by the insertion of a counterclaim” (ibid). Furthermore, as Tuchman notes, since many claims made by sources cannot be verified in time for publishing, and since government sources are de facto more credible than other sources, it is far easier to report that a government official stated ‘A,’ and ‘X said A’ is regarded “as a ‘fact’ even if ‘A’ is false” (Tuchman 1972: 665). In other words, that the President or Prime Minister said something is in itself ‘true’ enough to report upon, and the Reality of their statement has no practical impact on the legitimacy of using it. Hackett agrees: “far from being in some absolute sense neutral, news balance generally leads the media to reproduce the definitions of social reality which have achieved dominance in the electoral political arena” (Hackett 1984: 234).
Tuchman thus summarizes that journalists need to “amass[s] mutually self-validating facts,” or a which not only helps them do their job of “newswork” but also “reconstitutes the everyday world […] as historically given” (Tuchman 1978: 87). Thus: “to flesh out any one supposed fact one amasses a host of supposed facts that, when taken together, present themselves as both individually and collectively self-validating. Together they constitute a web of facticity by establishing themselves as cross-referents to one another” (Ibid.: 86). Therefore Tuchman’s main contention is that there is a distinct discrepancy between the ends sought and those achieved” in the journalists’ strategic rituals for objectivity (Tuchman 1972: 676).
In her brief theoretical discussion, Tuchman relates her findings theoretically to social constructionist theories, such as Schutz (1962) and Berger & Luckmann (1967). Via Schutz, she claims that while journalists have internalized the ‘taken-for-granted-ness’ of the news itself (i.e. paper for broadcast), that is the material elements of news as objective, and part of relative “shared meanings” that help stabilize a certain “social order” (Tuchman 1978: 187-188). However, this view does not take into account the coding practices of the media and their effects on our ‘shared meanings.’
Via Berger & Luckmann, she emphasizes the ahistorical, decontextualized ways in which news producers understand their product, and thus since “news reproduces itself as historically given” (Tuchman 1978: 195-196). Therefore our main critique could only be to unpack, contextualize, and historicize the news media. However, our critique or our ‘unpacking’ are part of a certain historical context and, thus, the same critique could be applied to itself, thus further removing us from trying to examine Reality.
While both of these are important observations and have led to much interesting research, as will be discussed below, their Antirealist critique can only go so far as it ignores the impact of media technology on our semiotic meaning-making systems.
V. Tuchman via Baudrillard
Similar to Tuchman’s concept of news media as being composed largely of a self-validating ‘web of facticity’ (Tuchman 1978), Baudrillard states that “the media frame and cut sample receivers by means of beamed messages which are in fact a network of selected questions,” and that “the media localise and structure not real, autonomous groups, but samples, modelled socially and mentally by a barrage of messages” (Baudrillard 1976: 64). That a ‘fact’ or ‘idea’ is more valid because it is also contained in other media discourse simply means that such a web of facticity is comprised of ‘models’ of reality, which are mutually-constituting ‘facts.’ Journalists cannot target externally verifiable ‘facts’ due not only to the structural limitations of their work, but the construction of the coding system they use, i.e. the inherent legitimacy of certain government and businesses sources.
As we can see there is a great similarity between Tuchman’s findings and Baudrillard’s theory, especially as encapsulated in Baudrillard’s statement that truth in the media is “inscribed in advance in the decoding and orchestration rituals of the media” (Baudrillard 1978a: 42). Such ‘orchestration rituals’ are analogous to Tuchman’s ‘strategic rituals,’ and thus Baudrillard’s Hyperrealist theory also pushes Tuchman into far more productive realms. While Tuchman would argue more along the lines of the Social Constructivist-Antirealist mode with its inevitable ‘truth is relative’ conclusion, the Hyperrealist perspective shows that truth and Reality is not relative. It is that signs of Reality are given via the journalists strategic orchestration rituals. If it were not so and the content of news was, we might say, Unreal, then audiences would not consume it or find it valuable. But the Hyperreality created by the rituals is familiar, or perhaps more than familiar, and thus finds purchase.
VI. Stuart Hall and Encoding/decoding
Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model and Baudrillard’s concept of coding also share many similarities which need to be sussed out, and it is surprising that this has yet to be done seeing the common heritage of both of their theories. It is interesting to note that the concepts of codes, encoding, and decoding are used by both Hall and Baudrillard, at the same time chronologically and from the same structuralist theoretical background, but have remained academically separate from each other. Instead of looking for correspondence of media messages to reality, Hall focuses on the ways in which producers of media encode their products and the relationship between that and the various ways in which the audiences can and do decode it, proclaiming there is a continuum between accepting and rejecting media messages.
Structuralism was only brought into the Anglo-American media studies fields in the late 1970s and early 1980s, paradigmatically via Hall (1980).What could be called an updated version of the Shannon-Weaver model (i.e. Shannon & Weaver 1949) was developed by Hall in the late 1970s. Hall’s Encoding/decoding model is applicable more towards mass communication and features more of a Social Constructivist conclusion. Hall argues we should think of communication “in terms of a structure produced and sustained through the articulation of linked but distinctive movements – production, circulation, distribution/consumption, reproduction” (Hall 1980: 128). The ‘objects’ of communication, for Hall, are “sign-vehicles” which are “organized […] through the operation of codes within the syntagmatic chain of discourse” (ibid). Encoding and decoding of messages are necessary because a “‘raw’ historical event cannot, in that form, be transmitted by, say, a television newscast. Events can only be signified within the aural-visual forms of the television discourse” (ibid: 129).
For Hall, the encoding practices of the producers of communication are composed of a range of practices and forms, such as the relations of production within the media organization, the knowledge the media producers have of their audience and the subject matter, the technical skills and infrastructure available to produce the communication (ibid: 128-130). In his words, the producers “draw topics, treatment, agendas, events, personnel, images of the audience, definitions of the situation from other sources and other discursive formations within the wider socio-cultural and political structure of which they are a differentiated part” (ibid: 129).
As far as the decoding practice of the audience is concerned, Hall argues for a continuum of ‘correspondence’ between the received message of the audience and the intended message of the producer. Since there is inevitably an “asymmetry between the codes of ‘source’ and ‘receiver’ at the moment of transformation in and out of the discursive form” (ibid: 131), the Lasswellian idea of a message having an effectis largely discredited. Thus, Hall conceptualizes the audience as being able to, on one extreme, decode the message exactly as the producer intended (the “dominant-hegemonic position”) and, on the other extreme, completely reject the intended message and reframing it in the receiver’s own way (Hall 1980: 136-138). In the middle is the “negotiated version,” containing elements of both extremes (ibid).
Human communication, conceived in this way, seems to have little to do with truth or reality, giving it an apparent anti-realist dimension. How does Hall himself situate ‘reality’ into his model? “Since the [for example] visual discourse translates a three-dimensional world into two-dimensional planes, it cannot, of course, be the referent or concept it signifies. […] Reality exists outside language, but it is constantly mediated by and through language: and what we can know and say has to be produced in and through discourse” (ibid:131). In other words, Hall agrees with the structuralist idea of the inevitable gap between referents (reality) and Sr/Sd (language), while maintaining at the same time that language mediates reality, that referents are mediated through Sr/Sd. This is so because “Discursive ‘knowledge’ is the product not of the transparent representation of the ‘real’ in language but of the articulation of language on real relations and conditions” (ibid: 131).
He purports that the ‘codes’ we use in the encoding and decoding process are the link between language and reality, between referents and Sd/Sr, as they are “naturalized” by “the habituation and the near-universality of the codes in use” (ibid: 132). For Hall, Realism is “the result, the effect, of a certain specific articulation of language on the ‘real’” with the result being “discursive practice” (ibid). He relies on the presence of ‘iconic signs’ in opposition to ‘linguistic signs’ in a discussion about denotation versus connotation, the difference between which Hall collapses, in that neither have “fixed” meanings (ibid: 133). Thus further elaboration of the relationship between his model and ‘reality’ is avoided, for Hall is more concerned with the flows of ideology through the media than their representational (in)abilities.
For Hall, reality lies outside his model, in some way influencing the ‘codes’ we develop to encode/decode messages and being represented by ‘iconic signs’ mediated by television or photography. Bias is thus a nonsensical concept, for it presupposes non-biased communication. All we can look at, according to this model, is an encoded message being decoded, neither of which relies on correspondence to reality but, instead, the codes we use. A decoding of a message cannot be ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect,’ only more or less close to the intended decoding the encoder wanted (“preferred meaning” [Hall 1980]) but necessarily never reaching it.
Hall’s work has, according to some critics, “the effect of sending a large number of people in media and cultural studies up a very long and ultimately pointless path” due to its assumption of the “polysemic” nature of news language (Philo 2008: 537). Instead Philo notes that research has instead shown audiences “do not typically create a new meaning with each ‘reading’ or encounter with an encoded message,” and instead rely on their existing knowledge structures to interpret new messages (ibid). In Hyperrealist terms, Hall does not sufficiently unpack the Realist effects that media codes have on media audiences. It is not (necessarily) about if they believe X is true or not, or if they have a negotiated position about X’s validity.
And, counter to Philo (2008), it is not only the existing knowledge structures, seemingly gained neutrally from society, that help people decode media messages. The important thing is the limited and self-referential ways in which media texts can be encoded by producers, and the concurrent ways in which audiences learn to decode the texts. In other words, it is not that decoding is limited to accepting or disagreeing each time from scratch, nor is it that decoding is subject to previous experiences; it is that decoding, and thus encoding, is self-referential due to the hegemonic effects of the media.
This is, in the end, not helpful for considering the epistemology of journalism because it only concerns the relationship between how the audience interprets a journalist’s product and the journalist’s intentions, and thus ignores discussion of the relationship between the journalistic product and ‘reality.’ Hall introduces, but does not fully unpack, the potential of the concept of ‘coding.’ The idea that certain codes are needed to ‘package’ reality for mass media consumption, that all humans (i.e. media producers and consumers) use them to encode and decode media is very important.
VII. Hall via Baudrillard
In radicalizing Antirealism with Hyperrealism, Hall’s ‘codes’ are useful in combination with Baudrillard’s concepts. For Hall they indicate a necessary and insurmountable distance from ‘reality’ and thus can only be part an extra-epistemological examination of media content. But for Baudrillard, codes are how Reality is simulated in order to create the Hyperreal. Any Reality that appears in the news media is not a result of the Realist discourse working, nor can it be dismissed completely by Antirealist arguments. This is, in fact, the spectre of reality and reflects more a ‘correspondence’ between codes internal to the media than between reality and our minds. Hall concludes (1982: 64): “The media defined, not merely reproduced, ‘reality.’ Definitions of reality were sustained and produced through all those linguistic practices (in the broad sense) by means of which selection definitions of ‘the real’ were represented. It implies the active work of selecting and presenting, of structuring and shaping […] of making things mean”. This is similar in several ways to Baudrillard’s assertion that many news media events are “produced as artifacts from the technical manipulation of the medium and its coded elements,” and that it is a “generalized substitution of the code for the reference that defines mass media consumption” (Baudrillard 1970: 92). However, the Hyperrealist approach tempts us to focus instead on examining how these codes simulate Reality instead of the ways audiences can interpret them. In a productive metaphor, Baudrillard draws parallels between the French word for editing a film, montage, and its literal opposite, démontage, with, respectively, encode and decode (Baudrillard 1976: 63). That is to say, the media producer edits/encodes a movie, TV show or whatnot, and the audience unedits/decodes it. Baudrillard believes that the editing/encoding of the message “demand[s] that” the audience unedits/decodes the message “in accordance with the same process,” and thus “[e]very reading of a message is thus nothing more than a perpetual test of the code” (ibid).
Like Hall’s conclusions, this is not to say that there is only one single way to unedit/decode a media or other type of message. But unlike Hall, Baudrillard contends that, in fact, certain “stereotypes or analytic models” are “trigger[ed]” (ibid) by the decoding process, out of control of the decoder and instead constrained by our Hyperrealist language. In other words, the encoding process does not tell us what to decode the message as; it is that both the encoding and decoding processes draw from the same model of codes, codes which are dedicated to their recurrence and thus can only give us knowledge about the Hyperreal codes themselves and not Reality.
We can thus see that the preceding Antirealist theories are better served supporting a Hyperrealist epistemology. Lippmann (i.e. 1921) was worried about the ability of news media, relying on simplified codes to process and distribute information, to properly function in a democracy. Like Hall, Baudrillard views the role of codes and the decoding/encoding process as the key to unravelling the Antirealist project. The reliance on a very limited number of codes, ones that are largely self-contained within the logic of the media, causes a decrease in the quality of information to the point where any meaning that does not reference the media itself is incompatible. As codes that are purely self-referential and have not relationship to reality are untenable for an information system, they thus need to simulate a correspondence to Reality and give the signs of Reality.
Thus, as Molotch & Lester (1974) put it, ‘routine’ events for the news media are, as Boorstin (1961) puts it, pseudo-events that have no extra-media existence because, as Tuchman (1972) puts it, their facts are mutually self-validating. Together this presents a strong Hyperrealist critique of the epistemology of a highly self-referential news media based upon Pragmatist discussions of Hyperreal ‘truths’ dressed in Realist clothing.
The Antirealist perspectives argue, in part, that what is true differs from society to society, and is largely based on our language. Media is viewed as being part of this system, not reflecting reality but, instead, constructing our view of reality from the routines and practices of journalists. Hyperrealism, the poststructuralist Baudrillardian perspective, however, forces us to consider that the thing from which journalists and the public get the information they need to construct the news are largely self-referring signifiers, bits of information that only signify other bits of information and have become too highly abstracted from real life.
Thus, even if we could establish that a (Critical) Realist’s tree fell, our interpretations of such an event is too heavily influenced by previous mediations of such events and thus instead express codes and models which function to simulate reality. Political speeches, as they would not exist without the media’s presence, are viewed as pseudo-events are prepared in advance for their consumption by the news media, thus journalists construct the news out of Sr/Sd, which then give rise to more self-reflecting Sd/Sr. For Baudrillard, news media is ‘beyond true and false,’ and any Realism that we think is out there is, in fact, Hyperreal, forced to be more real than real in order re-inject reality into an otherwise Antirealist world.
I argue that constructivist and post-structuralist Antirealists such as Tuchman and Hall are incorrect in saying there is no underlying reality to the media or that the underlying reality is not important. Such a critique unhelpfully pushes Antirealism out of the bounds of epistemology. We should view these events as being of a Hyperreal nature, which instead act to reassert that there is such an underlying ‘reality’ to counter any Antirealist criticism. Saying the Emperor has no clothes acts more to assert that the Emperor is an Emperor than to embarrass him for his lack of clothing. The journalistic act of (re)asserting Reality to the Antirealist audience, news medium, politicians and ‘bad’ journalists restores the reality principle. The ‘Realist’ journalists are, in fact, asserting Hyperreality to the Antirealists, using the Hyperreal to ‘fix’ the Antireal. The Antirealist stance thus only helps by giving the Realists a cause and breathing life back into reality by its denunciation.
The new experiences we go through in our lives, the majority of which are either mass mediated or highly influenced by mass mediation, that help us reweave our ‘web of facticity,’ as Tuchman (1978) puts it, is also subject to the Hyperreal effects of mass media. The encoding, decoding, reweaving, etc, processes may have once been based on experiences mediated by nothing other than our pure sensory experience of primary referents, but that cannot be said anymore. The methods we use to code and weave are based on the same methods the media uses to code and weave its information for that is the dominant input people in developed nations have. Debate and discussion are largely inconsequential because they are based off of those Hyperreal codes, the discussion is about Hyperreality and not Reality itself.
Even if the Realists are right and we can succeed in finding a way to remove the substance that separates our thoughts from reality, the reality we will find is a Hyperreal one based on mass mediated images, models and codes. Even if the Pragmatists are right and a good debate and discussion to reach our contingent conclusions will also be based on these models, the reweaving of our web and en/decoding of the messages on these codes.
Antirealists are right that mass media is not based off of or not related to the Realist’s conception of Reality. But I argue that instead of rejoicing or decrying the death of Reality, we should constantly be asserting that what Reality we seem to have access to is, instead, based off of Hyperreality, a more vital, more Real Reality than any Realist could ever hope to provide. We must instead start from the position that epistemology of the news media is Hyperreal in nature, not that it is Antirealist and we need to re-inject Reality, and not that it is Pragmatic and thus increased plurality of voices and clear discussion is sufficient. Critiquing the media from an Antirealist perspective only reinforces the idea of Realism, instead a Hyperrealist stance need to be taken in order to reveal the phantoms of Reality that haunt our news media.
About the Author
Jesse Owen Hearns-Branaman is Lecturer in Communication Theory and Media at the Graduate School of Language and Communications at the National Institute of Development Administration, Bangkok, Thailand. His research interests include Žižek, Baudrillard, the Propaganda Model, Chinese news media, and journalism. He has previously taught and studied journalism, communication, and media studies at the University of Leeds, UK, and the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China. The author thanks Paul A. Taylor, Chris Paterson, and Steven Lax for productive comments given to previous versions of this article.
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