Theses Doctoral

In the Funhouse Mirror: How News Subjects Respond to their Media Reflections

Palmer, Ruth

Based on in-depth interviews with eighty-three people who were named in newspapers in the New York City-area and a southwestern city, this dissertation explores the phenomenon of being featured, quoted, or mentioned in a news story, from the subject's point of view. Discussions of news subjects usually begin when the journalist comes on the scene and end with subjects' assessments of accuracy in the articles in which they appear. But I find that news subjects perceive the phenomenon of "making the news" as a broader saga that begins with their involvement in an event or issue, often only later deemed newsworthy by journalists, and extends to the repercussions of the coverage in their lives, including feedback they receive from others and effects on their digital reputations. Subjects interpret their news coverage, including its accuracy, in light of the trigger events that brought them to journalists' attention in the first place and the coverage's ensuing effects. Individual chapters focus on subjects' reasons for wanting or not wanting to speak to reporters; their interactions with reporters; their reactions to the news content in which they were named; and repercussions of news appearances. I conclude that the assumption that news subjects are all victims of the press is both reductive and, often, from the subject's own point of view, inaccurate. While common wisdom suggests that people who seek news attention do so for petty or poorly considered reasons, I find that interviewees often did consider the pros and cons of speaking to the press before agreeing to do so. For most participants the attraction could be summarized as the opportunity to address or display themselves before a large audience, which they saw as rare and elusive, even in today's web 2.0 world. At the same time, most subjects understood, at least in theory, the main risks involved: that they were giving up control over their stories to reporters, but would nonetheless bear the repercussions of having had their names in the news. But the majority concluded--even after seeing the, often imperfect, resulting articles--that the benefits outweighed the risks. Subjects were often pleased with their news appearances even despite inaccuracies in the content because they found that, unless they were portrayed extremely negatively, appearing in the news conferred status, which was often not just psychologically but materially beneficial. Those subjects who were left dissatisfied with their experiences appearing in the news only rarely felt misled or outright betrayed by journalists. It was far more common that subjects felt journalists were unacceptably aggressive or exploitative. Other subjects traced their discontent not to their interactions with journalists but to the content of the resulting news stories, whether because inaccuracies derailed their objectives for appearing in the news in the first place, or because the content had stigmatizing effects. This is the ugly obverse of status conferral: subjects who were portrayed as behavioral deviants--criminals for instance--found that not only was their status not enhanced by their news appearances, their social standing and professional prospects were badly damaged. I conclude that both the status and stigma conferred by the news media are magnified by the digital publication, circulation, and searchability of news articles, which can now continue to have profound effects on subjects' lives far into the future.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Gitlin, Todd
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 13, 2013