NYU Media Sociology Forum: Presentation Outline
In this talk I would like to propose a hypothetical curricular change, which could also
serve as a mental readjustment for communications scholar. I would like to propose that
we supplement out current course, “The Social Impact of Mass Media”
With a new course, “The Associational Affordances Fragmented Media.” As you can see,
the first three words are shifted, while the fourth remains the same.
From social to association;
from impact to affordance,
from mass to fragmented
In part, this exercise is similar to what I used to do when I taught contemporary
civilization at Columbia—to take a thinker’s ideas, in this case, the thought of Bruno
Latour and a cluster of sociologists associated with science and technology studies and
actor-network theory—apply them to a “new” problem (in this case, communication and
journalism scholarship, and push them to their absolute limit; to their breaking point.
And to see what happens.
In part, however, this is more than simply a drill. It’s an attempt to come to terms with a
new and confusing empirical reality, a world where traditional industrial models of
journalism are collapsing and the media is increasing narrow, niche, and fragmentary
I want to foreground two touchstones in the following discussion. The first is the vibrant
tradition of media framing research in communications study. The second are the
writings of STS scholar and political theorist Nootje Marres, particular her brief musings
on what she calls “issue attachment.”
I start with the observation that one classic element of media theory that ANT would
seem to hate would be concepts of media framing, a concept with a long and vibrant
Frames are, after all, ultimately concerned with representation: how the media portrays
the world. They are, moreover, representations that exist long after the network that
produces them has been assembled, and seem to be grounded in structural asymmetries
(some frames are obviously more powerful than others). Frames, in short, seems to
embody everything ANT neglects:
they are mediated images of “the social,”
produced by large, black-boxed institutions (“the media”)
which are then fed back into “the social” itself, and presumably, act upon it in
some powerful way.
In her highly original application of actor-network concepts to the articulation and
“working out” of public controversies, Nootje Marres seems to sense the difficulty
frames entail. Frames, for Marres, are ultimately tied to “issue articulation,” to the ways
that public issues are bounded prior to the mobilization of a public. Marres seems to
argue that the epistemological concept of framing be supplemented by the ontological
notion of “attachment,” a philosophically difficult idea with something of a tangled
history in science and technology studies.
Thus understanding of “framing” and “attachment” would seem to result in a neat
division of labor:
- journalism, the news, and “media frames” operate in the epistemological realm;
and are concerned with the symbolic production and packaging of public issues;
- attachment intersects with public mobilization on an ontological level. Citizens
are “entangled” with objects of public controversy (hydroelectric dams, for
example, or the associations that themselves cluster around the issue of
hydroelectric dams) and thus posses “attachment” to the articulation, mobilization
and working out of public issues.
As neat as this division appears, it runs the risk of entirely confining the communications
media to a realm ANT finds both uninteresting and a little dishonest—the mediation of
public issues-- whereas the objects of issue attachment are more legitimate and even, in a
sense more “real.” Bur publics rarely form on the basis of objective issue entanglement
alone; just look at the aging liberals long past military service age who protested the Iraq
war or the underinsured members of the working class disrupting health care town halls.
I would argue that this bifurcation of a symbol-laden “media” and ontological “issue
objects” ultimately stems from a general neglect of the ontological status of journalistic
objects in much of the STS philosophy. As a second example of this, turn to the famous
opening pages of Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. After running through the list
of hybrids populating the pages of his morning paper, Latour stops short of considering
the hybrid nature of the newspaper itself, moving instead to a more general meditation on
the nature of the modern world and leaving Le Monde floating in the symbolic ether as an
example of trite epistemological mediation. But we might ask: what was that object
Latour perused over his breakfast? What role did it play in assembling his own webs of
attachment and issue entanglement? Did it simply frame the world for him, or did it do
The key move here would be to see the products of the news and communications media
as objects in and of themselves, capable of a style of network entanglement that might
effect issue attachment in the same manner as a dam or a field of genetically modified
corn. Rather than preserving theories of “media framing” in their Kantian purity (a form
in which they would surely be recognizable to communications theorists), we could seek
to dismantle the notion of frame. Under this conception of the media, communications
infastructures would produce media objects around which actants might orient
their actions; or, in more ANT-appropriate language, produce media objects around
which networks might form and “events” could occur. This would accept the force
of Couldry’s criticism (that ANT it has difficulty incorporating symbol producing
macro-structures, like frames, into its overall world-view) while still preserving a
powerful role for the theory in explaining the enactment of public controversy and
the role of the “media” in that controversy.
This has all been highly abstract, so let me turn to two examples of issue framing—one
classic, one current—from a more ontological, “media object” point of view. One of
Marres difficulties with the framing concept, we will recall, was that it postulated not
only the existence of frames but counterframes. Indeed the notion of frames and counter-
frames has lain at base of framing research from the beginning. Recall Gitlin’s justly
celebrated analysis of the manner in which the New York Times framed the first SDS
anti-war protest in Washington DC, on April 16, 1965:
Gitlin: “The Times coverage of the March itself compounded the serious and the shallow.
The story trivialized the march; it balanced presumably equivalent anti-war and Ultra-
right forces; and it began to construe the student movement as freakish deviancy.”
Far more neglected in communications research, I would argue, is Gitlin’s subsequent
discussion of the way that the movement newspaper the National Guardian itself
framed the march:
Gitlin again: “How else could the March on Washington have been reported? One way
into the question is to see how it was handled from other points of view. The left-wing
national guardian, with considerably lengthier coverage, gave one alternate reading of the
As a demonstration that frames exist, the comparison is a brilliant one, but it isn’t clear
what else it comparison does. As Marres perceptively notes:
[slide 11]: “The notion of frames, to which that of “counter-frames” is sometimes added,
sets up a symmetry between contrasting issue definitions, which grant different meanings
to different issues, which are more or less able to attract public attention. (772)
The phrase “more or less able to attract public attention” is key here, as it indicates the
degree to which much of the literature on framing and counterframing effaces the very
questions that are the most interesting.
Obviously, news objects “do” something, and some of them “do more” than others: in
1965, or even 1995, it seemed obvious that the New York Times “did more” than the
National Guardian. But is such a statement so obvious today? The fragmentation of the
media sphere, the increasing prevalence of what Bennet and Mannheim have called the
“one step flow” of direct communication, and the collapse of monopolistic newspaper
business models in most American cities should render us skeptical of the notion of
dominant and subordinate frames.
Nevertheless, the sociological literature on the media and social movements has not gone
much beyond writings from 30 years ago.
Rather than New York Times as producing the “dominant frame” of the SDS
protest, and the National Guardian producing the subordinate frame, we might
instead see the both the Times and the Guardian as engaged in the assemblage of
news objects occuping various nodes in the issue networks entagled around Vietnam
war. The Times and Guardian articles should be seen, not as frames, but as media
objects around which actants might orient their actions. This would, I argue,
radically shift our understanding of what we once called “alternative” media and
now more often call “citizen journalism,” “blogs,” or “social meda.” Increasingly,
perhaps, all journalism is alternative. The New York Times may, ultimately,
produce the dominant object; the question then becomes why?
Understanding journalism as an ontological phenomenon geared toward the orientation of
action may be comforting when our example is journalism about Vietnam-war protests
that, I would guess, most of the members of this audience would have supported.
Disturbing consequences become visible, however, when we apply this analytical lens to
social action with which we may disagree.
Remaining faithful to the lessons of ANT, we have entered a world where the primary
analytical category for media is what happens rather than what is true.
Take the health care town-hall protests. A traditional way to view the relationship of
media to these protests would be to see “conservative” media outlets – either Fox News,
talk radio, or one of the many conservative mailing lists-- as distorting the truth about
health care reform, agitating for public action, and, through misleading or false counter-
framing, affecting “public opinion” about the “public option.” Academics and media
analysts, however, can point out the untruth of these claims by comparing the real world
to particular slices of media content.
Under the analytical regime I am advocating here, however, the
- media builds objects
- and networks events—and that is all.
As the Philosopher Graham Harman has written:
Most communications scholarship since the late 1960’s until today, I would posit, is
ultimately Kantian, concerned with how journalism does or does not bridge the
“mournful chasm” between the social and the real. Frame analysis, in particular, follows
this path. The method I outline here, I would argue, is something else. And while Marres
seems to advocate relegating communication and media work to the realm of discursive
epistemology (with the important issue work done by objects and their associations), I
would claim we can also think of communication as the production of objects.
To sum up: this has not been an argument for us to abandon of media frame analysis;
with any luck we are past the point in our scholarship where we must argue that to
embrace one theoretical lens we must abandon the other, or that we can never utilize old
tools. A theory, after all, is only any good insofar as it helps us devise a particular
framework for answering even more particular questions. In this instance, I have simply
argued that traditional “frame analysis” is difficult using the tools provided by ANT.
ANT, however, provides different tools for different purposes.
While the analysis of media frames finds a comfortable home in classes devoted to the
“social impact of mass media,” the method I discuss here may be better housed in a class
titled “the associational affordances of fractured media.” When doing ANT, leave social
impact behind. Such a strategy, I think, may come in handy as we seek to reinvigorate
the study of the link between social movements and journalism.