PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As COVID-19 continues to spread, housebound Americans are glued to their screens more than ever before. According to the latest Nielsen ratings, consumption of local television news has increased steadily in nearly every metropolitan area, as has streaming on platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.
Taking in a steady stream of TV is nothing new for Lynne Joyrich, a professor of modern culture and media at Brown University. For Joyrich, watching is research as much as it is recreation: She teaches courses in film and television studies at Brown, edits the media studies journal Camera Obscura, and regularly contributes scholarly observations on the influences of TV on our culture, politics and perceptions. But these days, even Joyrich is hopping between ever more news channels and joining an increasing number of viewing parties for thought-provoking series such as “Pose.”
As the virus continued to escalate across the U.S., Joyrich shared her thoughts on how TV news is influencing public behavior during the pandemic — and how Americans are using television as both a source of information and as a respite from bad news.
Q: Pandemics aside, how does television influence the way we see the world?
TV has had an enormous impact on our world ever since it was introduced as a consumer medium. In terms of shaping our world view: absolutely, television does that. It does not do it, I would say, in a purely mechanical way. There was a model in the early days of social science research that suggested TV was almost like a hypodermic needle: The messages there would be injected into you and would become part of you. Studies have gone on to prove that it’s not that simple.
I do think, though, that television has a huge cultural impact in terms of normalization, setting agendas and setting limits for discussion. For example, in today’s world, TV is sort of the definer of the mainstream. Television is what guides us to see certain things as mundane or banal, as well as guiding us to see certain things as strange or unusual.
Q: How has TV shaped the way we think about COVID-19?
I think it depends on what you watch. People these days can be caught in news bubbles if they constantly watch one outlet instead of several. Many news networks are calling the novel coronavirus unprecedented, a global crisis; other networks are still very skeptical about the seriousness of the virus. So as a result, there’s a real difference you see in the beliefs and behaviors of people, depending on what news station they watch.
I do have enormous respect for reporters and anchors who are out there reporting, and I certainly think they’re trying to work for the public good. But television is a consumer business; it operates by ensuring that people keep watching. You see that not only in the way Netflix constantly points you toward the next episode or the next show, but also in the way news shows provide endless updates and use cliffhangers before commercial breaks. In some ways, that’s helping keep people informed. In other ways, that can be problematic if the show isn’t presenting the full story. We always have to ask, well, what perspectives are not being told? What voices or faces are we not seeing? And it’s not only about what is presented but how things are presented. Who is empowered to speak directly to us, and who is just in the background or not there at all?
It will be interesting to see how TV changes now that networks have shut down production on shows in order to practice social distancing. They might pick up shows that were already shot but didn’t make the cut before this. There’s a possibility that they will experiment with various forms — like more animation, as that doesn’t require people to work together in person; more linked-via-remote television formats; or other new modes of production. It would be wonderful if commercial TV would learn from independent media production and introduce a greater diversity of faces, voices, bodies and ideas than we usually see. It could open up some exciting new possibilities.
Q: How does the bottom line affect the news coverage on for-profit TV networks?
There’s a way in which news, in order to be profitable, has to flatter the viewer. It has to make the viewer feel like they’re being seen and taken care of and are part of the news family. News anchors look right at the camera and say phrases like, “What we want to know. What you want to know. From our family to yours.” It’s as if they’re in direct conversation with us — we feel directly addressed. There’s a way in which these conventions can create a sense of community and togetherness. But they can also lead to nationalistic and xenophobic feelings, where “our family” only includes the types of people we see and hear from on TV.
To some degree, when news networks are dealing with terrible news, as they are during this pandemic, some of them feel pressure to flatter viewers by telling them what they want to hear. I think that has led to some media networks that very troublingly don’t want to come out with all the facts, which could be absolutely deadly right now.
Q: You have mentioned in your research that on TV news, fact and fiction often blur. How is that happening now, as news stations cover COVID-19?
Even among journalists who are dedicated to pursuing the truth, you can see them borrowing from fictional structures to tell their stories. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and, in many stories, there are heroes and villains.
It’s important to be aware of TV forms, models, conventions, and strategies to see not only how they’re employed on television but also how our president is using them. President Trump has borrowed from TV tropes and personae for his entire political career. He knows how to play a persona, whether it’s modeled after those on reality TV to characters on “Battlestar Galactica” or “The West Wing.” In his daily briefings, he is casting himself as the hero and some state governors — as well as those in the media themselves — as the villains. He is playing governors off of each other as if they are contestants on “The Apprentice” who have to prove their entrepreneurial spirit in order to succeed — as if states are all tribes on an episode of “Survivor.”
Q: What advice would you give to viewers who want to make sure they’re getting the truth?
Watch more than one network and turn to multiple media forms — not just TV, not just Twitter, not just one podcast. Don’t get trapped in a media bubble. Don’t take everything at face value. Discuss the news with people. Debate with people. Keep an open mind. Always aim to be a critical viewer, including — or especially — with things you enjoy.
We’re in a funny situation where most people alive today have grown up with television. We think we are media-savvy viewers. But there’s a difference between being a clever viewer, where you get cultural references and in-jokes, and being a thoughtful and critical viewer. Ask yourself, how is this show being produced? Why is it being produced this way? Who is benefiting? Who am I not hearing from? What’s being left out?
I would also encourage people to get outside their comfort zone with fictional programs. There are so many shows out there that raise interesting questions about how to handle a crisis or an apocalypse. There are shows out there that explore questions of race, gender and sexuality in innovative ways. Whether it’s news or fiction or documentaries, I think people just really have to put thought into what they’re watching.
A lot of people feel that we’re in these media bubbles where people who disagree can’t talk to each other without getting into a huge argument. But in some ways — even though it can produce those bubbles — TV has also provided an excellent model for bringing people together even when they’re distant, physically or ideologically. For decades, people would watch the same shows at the same time in their separate households and debate it at the water cooler the next day. Now, they watch together and discuss it online in real time. TV has already proven to provide that sense that we’re together even when we’re apart. If we could learn from the best of TV — while also re-envisioning it to make it better — that could help us in these times.