Culture in Mind: Toward a Sociology of Culture and Cognition

By Karen A. Cerulo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10

How Storytelling Can Be Empowering1

William A. Gamson

Critics of American media often focus on the strong tendency to personalize broader social issues. As Bennett (1996:39) articulates the criticism:

If there is a single most important flaw in the American news style, it is the overwhelming tendency to downplay the big social, economic, or political picture in favor of the human trials and triumphs that sit at the surface of events. In place of power and process, the media concentrate on the people engaged in political combat over the issues…. When people are invited to “take the news personally,” they can find a wide range of private, emotional meanings in it. However, the meanings inspired by personalized news are not the shared critical and analytical meanings on which a healthy democracy thrives. Personalized news encourages people to take an egocentric rather than a socially concerned view of political problems.

Furthermore, this media practice of personalization is strongly reinforced by a broader set of sociocultural forces that discourage thinking about issues in collective terms. Gans (1979:51) describes individualism as an enduring value in the news. Individuals, acting on their own terms rather than collectively, are continually presented as “a source of economic, social, and cultural productivity” and “a means of achieving cultural variety.”

Not just news but also entertainment and advertising are heavily implicated in the process. Merelman (1984:1) tells us that a “loosely bounded culture prevents Americans from controlling their political and social destinies, for the world which loose boundedness portrays is not the world of political and social structures that actually exists. It is, instead, a shadowland, which gives Americans little real purchase on the

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