media

If you walked through a city without looking up at any billboards, could advertisers yell at you? Could the owner of an iconic building shame you for “stealing” a beautiful view while weaseling them out of their livelihood? It sounds absurd, and you might remember a viral quote from Banksy (riffing on original writing from Sean Tejaratchi), tearing the idea apart.

But what about digital advertising? The internet looks very different if you are using software to block advertisements. Use it for a long time you’ll forget how much junk a user has to slog through to read or watch anything.

Of course, blocking ads cuts into the main source of support for online publications. Lately, many have taken up a new approach to discourage their users from blocking ads: good old fashioned shame and guilt.

We can have an important conversation about the ethics of paying for content online, but what strikes me the most about these pop-ups are some core sociological questions about the shaming tactic: why here, and why now?

For a long time, social scientists have seen a “digital divide” in how unequal access to the internet reinforces social inequality. Research also shows that the digital divide isn’t just about access; people learn to use the internet in different ways from these early access experiences. From the design side, sociologists Jenny Davis and James Chouinard have also written about affordance theory: the way technology requests, demands, allows, encourages, discourages, and refuses different kinds of behavior from users.

Yes, you can see the important weather alert, but first…

For some, the internet is about abundance and agency. Take as much time as you need to figure out your problems, and, if things don’t work out, bend the world to your will! Grab open source software or write a script to automate the boring stuff! Open your app of choice to hail a ride if the bus is delayed or the taxis are busy! For others, these choices aren’t as readily apparent. If you had to trek to the library and sign up for time-limited computer access, the internet can seem a lot less helpful and a lot less free, at least at first glance.

These ideas help us understand the biggest problem for ad-block shaming: “soft” barriers, delays, and emotional appeals are trying to change the behavior of people who already have the upper hand from learning to seek out and use blocking software to make the internet work better for them. David Banks’ writing on this over at Cyborgology in 2015 shows the power struggle at work:

The ad blocker should not be seen as a selfish technology. It is a socialist cudgel—something that forces otherwise lazy capitalists to find new and inventive ways to make their creations sustainable. Ad blockers are one of the few tools users have to fight against the need to monetize fast and big because it troubles the predictability of readily traceable attention.

Now, emotional appeals like guilt and shame are the next step after stronger power plays like rigid paywalls largely failed for publishing companies. The challenge is that guilt and shame require a larger sense of community obligation for people to feel their effects, and I am not sure a pop-up is ever going to be anything other than an obstacle to get around.

It’s not that online advertising is inherently good or bad, and the problem of paying artists and writers in the digital age is a serious concern. But in addition to these considerations, looking directly at the way web design tries to shape our online interactions can better prepare us to see how the rules of the social world can be challenged and changed.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the family separation and detention policies at the U.S. border. The facts are horrifying.

Recent media coverage has led to a flurry of outrage and debate about the origins of this policy. It is a lot to take in, but this case also got me thinking about an important lesson from sociology for following politics in 2018: we’re not powerless in the face of “fake news.”

Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

Political sociologists talk a lot about framing—the way movements and leaders select different interpretations of an issue to define and promote their position. Frames are powerful interpretive tools, and sociologists have shown how framing matters for everything from welfare reform and nuclear power advocacy to pro-life and labor movements.

One of the big assumptions in framing theory is that leaders coordinate. There might be competition to establish a message at first, but actors on the same side have to get together fairly quickly to present a clean, easy to understand “package” of ideas to people in order to make political change.

The trick is that it is easy to get cynical about framing, to think that only powerful people get to define the terms of debate. We assume that a slick, well-funded media campaign will win out, and any counter-frames will get pushed to the side. But the recent uproar over boarder separation policies shows how framing can be a very messy process. Over just a few days, these are a few of the frames coming from administration officials and border authorities:

We don’t know how this issue is going to turn out, but many of these frames have been met with skepticism, more outrage, and plenty of counter-evidence. Calling out these frames alone is not enough; it will take mobilization, activism, lobbying, and legislation to change these policies. Nevertheless, this is an important reminder that framing is a social process, and, especially in an age of social media, it is easier than ever to disrupt a political narrative before it has the chance to get organized.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

The recent controversy about local news stations in the Sinclair Broadcasting Group reading a coordinated, nationwide message against “fake news” raises questions about the state of news consumption in the United States. Where are Americans getting their news from? If more people are reading the news online, did the Sinclair message have a large impact?

The General Social Survey asks respondents where they get most of their information about the news. This graph shows big changes in Americans’ primary news source, including the rise of online news and the decline of television and newspapers. Notably, in the 2016 GSS, the Internet overtook TV as Americans’ primary source of news for the first time.

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Another survey, The Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, takes a different approach. They ask respondents to select whether they use newspapers, blogs, television, or other sources for their news information. When a survey doesn’t ask respondents to pick a primary source, we see that use rates are more steady over time as people still use a variety of sources.

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Reported rates of news watching have also stayed pretty stable over the last eight years, with about three-quarters of Americans getting some of their news from TV. Of people who watch news on TV, many respondents report that they watch both local and national news, and this choice has stayed relatively stable over time. Since local news is still a steady part of our news diet, the Sinclair broadcast had a much broader potential reach than we would typically assume about news today.

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Ryan Larson is a graduate student from the Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. He studies crime, punishment, and quantitative methodology. He is a member of the Graduate Editorial Board of The Society Pages, and his work has appeared in Poetics, Contexts, and Sociological Perspectives.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Andrew M. Lindner is an Associate Professor at Skidmore College. His research interests include media sociology, political sociology, and sociology of sport.

Inspired by demographic facts you should know cold, “What’s Trending?” is a post series at Sociological Images featuring quick looks at what’s up, what’s down, and what sociologists have to say about it.

That large (and largely trademarked) sporting event is this weekend. In honor of its reputation for massive advertising, Lisa Wade tipped me off about this interesting content analysis of last year’s event by the Media Education Foundation.

MEF watched last year’s big game and tallied just how much time was devoted to playing and how much was devoted to ads and other branded content during the game. According to their data, the ball was only in play “for a mere 18 minutes and 43 seconds, or roughly 8% of the entire broadcast.”

MEF used a pie chart to illustrate their findings, but readers can get better information from comparing different heights instead of different angles. Using their data, I quickly made this chart to more easily compare branded and non-branded content.

Data Source: Media Education Foundation, 2018

One surprising thing that jumps out of this data is that, for all the hubbub about commercials, far and away the most time is devoted to replays, shots of the crowd, and shots of the field without the ball in play. We know “the big game” is a big sell, but it is interesting to see how the thing it sells the most is the spectacle of the event itself.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

During a year marked by social and political turmoil, the media has found itself under scrutiny from politicians, academics, the general public, and increasingly self-reflexive journalists and editors. Fake news has entered our lexicon both as a form of political meddling from foreign powers and a dismissive insult directed towards any less-than-complimentary news coverage of the current administration.

Paying attention to where people are getting their news and what that news is telling them is an important step to understanding our increasingly polarized society and our seeming inability to talk across political divides. The insight can also help us get at those important and oh-too common questions of “how could they think that?!?” or “how could they support that politician?!?”

My interest in this topic was sparked a few months ago when I began paying attention to the top four stories and single video that magically appear whenever I swipe left on my iPhone. The stories compiled by the Apple News App provide a snapshot of what the dominant media sources consider the newsworthy happenings of the day. After paying an almost obsessive attention to my newsfeed for a few weeks—and increasingly annoying my friends and colleagues by telling them about the compelling patterns I was seeing—I started to take screenshots of the suggested news stories on a daily or twice daily basis. The images below were gathered over the past two months.

It is worth noting that the Apple News App adapts to a user’s interests to ensure that it provides “the stories you really care about.” To minimize this complicating factor I avoided clicking on any of the suggested stories and would occasionally verify that my news feed had remained neutral through comparing the stories with other iPhone users whenever possible.

Some of the differences were to be expected—People simply cannot get enough of celebrity pregnancies and royal weddings. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN frequently feature stories that are critical of the current administration, and Fox News is generally supportive of President Trump and antagonistic towards enemies of the Republican Party.

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However, there are two trends that I would like to highlight:

1) A significant number of Fox News headlines offer direct critiques of other media sites and their coverage of key news stories. Rather than offering an alternative reading of an event or counter-coverage, the feature story undercuts the journalistic work of other news sources through highlighting errors and making accusations of partisanship motivations. In some cases, this even takes the form of attacking left-leaning celebrities as proxy to a larger movement or idea. Neither of these tactics were employed by any of the other news sources during my observation period.

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2) Fox News often featured coverage of vile, treacherous, or criminal acts committed by individuals as well as horrifying accidents. This type of story stood out both due to the high frequency and the juxtaposition to coverage of important political events of the time—murderous pigs next to Senate resignations and sexually predatory high school teachers next to massively destructive California wildfires. In a sense, Fox News is effectively cultivating an “asociological” imagination by shifting attention to the individual rather than larger political processes and structural changes. In addition, the repetitious coverage of the evil and devious certainly contributes to a fear-based society and confirms the general loss of morality and decline of conservative values.

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It is worth noting that this move away from the big stories of the day also occurs through a surprising amount of celebrity coverage.

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From the screen captures I have gathered over the past two months, it seems apparent that we are not just consuming different interpretations of the same event, but rather we are hearing different stories altogether. This effectively makes the conversation across political affiliation (or more importantly, news source affiliation) that much more difficult if not impossible.

I recommend taking time to look through the images that I have provided on your own. There are a number of patterns I did not discuss in this piece for the sake of brevity and even more to be discovered. And, for those of us who spend our time in the front of the classroom, the screenshot approach could provide the basis for a great teaching activity where the class collectively takes part in both the gathering of data and conducting the analysis. 

Kyle Green is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at The College at Brockport, State University of New York. He is a proud TSP alumnus and the co-author /co-host of Give Methods a Chance.

Photo Credit: Meagan Fisher, Flickr CC

2017 was a big year for conversations about representation in popular media—what it means to tell stories that speak to people across race, gender, sexuality, ability, and more. Between the hits and the misses, there is clearly much more work to do. Representation is not just about who shows up on screen, but also about what kinds of stories get told and who gets to make them happen.

For example, many people are now familiar with “The Bechdel Test” as a pithy shortcut to check for women’s representation in movies. Now, proposals for a new Bechdel Test cover everything from the gender composition of a film’s crew to specific plot points.

These conversations are especially important for the stories we make for kids, because children pick up many assumptions about gender and race at a very young age. Now, new research published in Sociological Forum helps us better understand what kinds of stories we are telling when we seek out a diverse range of children’s books.

Krista Maywalt Aronson, Brenna D. Callahan, and Anne Sibley O’Brien wanted to look at the most common themes in children’s stories with characters from underrepresented racial and cultural groups. Using a special collection of picture books for grades K-3 from the Ladd Library at Bates College, the authors gathered a data set of 1,037 books published between 2008 and 2015 (see their full database here). They coded themes from the books to see which story arcs occurred most often, and what groups of characters were most represented in each theme.

The most common theme, occurring in 38% of these books, was what they called “beautiful life”—positive depictions of the everyday lives of the characters. Next up was the “every child” theme in which main characters came from different racial or ethnic backgrounds, but those backgrounds were not central to the plot. Along with biographies and folklore, these themes occurred more often than stories of oppression or cross-cultural interaction.

These themes tackle a specific kind of representation: putting characters from different racial and ethnic groups at the center of the story. This is a great start, but it also means that these books are more likely to display diversity, rather than showing it in action. For example, the authors write:

Latinx characters were overwhelmingly found in culturally particular books. This sets Latinx people apart as defined by a language and a culture distinct from mainstream America, and sometimes by connection to home countries.

They also note that the majority of these books are still created by white authors and illustrators, showing that there’s even more work to do behind the scenes. Representation matters, and this research shows us how more inclusive popular media can start young!

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo via Oli (Flickr CC)

Whether you’re taking a long flight, taking some time on the treadmill, or just taking a break over the holidays, ’tis the season to catch up on podcasts. Between long-running hits and some strong newcomers this year, there has never been a better time to dive into the world of social science podcasts. While we bring the sociological images, do your ears a favor and check these out.

Also, this list is far from comprehensive. If you have tips for podcasts I missed, drop a note in the comments!

New in 2017

If you’re new to sociology, or want a more “SOC 101” flavor, The Social Breakdown is perfect for you. Hosts Penn, Ellen, and Omar take a core sociological concept in each episode and break it down, offering great examples both old and new (and plenty of sass). Check out “Buddha Heads and Crosses” for a primer on cultural appropriation from Bourdieu to Notorious B.I.G.

Want to dive deeper? The Annex is at the cutting edge of sociology podcasting. Professors Joseph Cohen, Leslie Hinkson, and Gabriel Rossman banter about the news of the day and bring you interviews and commentary on big ideas in sociology. Check out the episode on Conspiracy Theories and Dover’s Greek Homosexuality for—I kid you not—a really entertaining look at research methods.

Favorite Shows Still Going Strong

In The Society Pages’ network, Office Hours brings you interviews with leading sociologists on new books and groundbreaking research. Check out their favorite episode of 2017: Lisa Wade on American Hookup!

Felling wonky? The Scholars Strategy Network’s No Jargon podcast is a must-listen for the latest public policy talk…without jargon. Check out recent episodes on the political rumor mill and who college affirmative action policies really serve.

I was a latecomer to The Measure of Everyday Life this year, finding it from a tip on No Jargon, but I’m looking forward to catching up on their wide range of fascinating topics. So far, conversations with Kieran Healy on what we should do with nuance and the resurrection of typewriters have been wonderful listens.

And, of course, we can’t forget NPR’s Hidden Brain. Tucked away in their latest episode on fame is a deep dive into inconspicuous consumption and the new, subtle ways of wealth in America.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

The New York Times has been catching a lot of criticism this week for publishing a profile on the co-founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party. Critics argue that stories taking a human interest angle on how alt-right activists live, and how they dress, are not just puff pieces that aren’t doing due diligence in reporting—they also risk “normalizing” neo-nazi and white supremacist views in American society.

It is tempting to scoff at the buzzword “normalization,” but there is good reason for the clunky term. For sociologists, what is normal changes across time and social context, and normalization means more than whether people choose to accept deviant beliefs or behaviors. Normalization means that the everyday structure of organizations can encourage and reward deviance, even unintentionally.

Media organizations play a key role here. Research on the spread of anti-Muslim attitudes by Chris Bail shows how a small number of fringe groups with extremist views were able to craft emotionally jarring messages that caught media attention, giving them disproportionate influence in policy circles and popular culture.

Organizations are also quite good at making mistakes, and even committing atrocities, through “normal” behavior. Research on what happened at NASA leading up to the Challenger disaster by Diane Vaughan describes normalization using a theory of crime from Edwin H. Sutherland where people learn that deviant behavior can earn them benefits, rather than sanctions. When bending the rules becomes routine in organizations, we get everything from corporate corruption up to mass atrocities. According to Vaughan:

When discovered, a horrified world defined these actions deviant, yet they were normative within the culture of the work and occupations of the participants who acted in conformity with organizational mandates

The key point is that normalization doesn’t just stop by punishing or shaming individuals for bad behavior. Businesses can be fined, scapegoats can be fired, and readers can cancel subscriptions, but if normalization is happening the culture of an institution will continue to shape how individual people make decisions.This raises big questions about the decisions made by journalists and editors in pursuit of readership.

Research on normalization also begs us to remember that some of the most horrifying crimes and accidents in human history are linked by a common process: the way organizations can reward deviant work. Just look at the “happy young folks” photographed by Karl Höcker in 1944…while they worked at Auschwitz.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.