The Construction of Leadership Images in the Popular Press: The Case of Donald Burr and People Express

By Chen, Chao C.; Meindl, James R. | Administrative Science Quarterly, December 1991 | Go to article overview
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The Construction of Leadership Images in the Popular Press: The Case of Donald Burr and People Express


Chen, Chao C., Meindl, James R., Administrative Science Quarterly


A social constructionist view (Berger and Luckmann, 1966) suggests that much about the way we understand organizations, as reflected in our implicit theories (Downey and Brief, 1986), is likely to be controlled by our interactions with social agents who affect the availability, salience, vividness or value of the information we receive (Salancik and Pfeffer, 1978). Leadership concepts in particular appear as prominent features of these socially constructed realities (Calder, 1977); Pfeffer and salancik, 1978; Meindl, Ehrlich, and Dukerich, 1985; Meindl, 1990). Consistent with these views, we argue here that collective conceptions of organization, and of leadership in particular, are expressions of a national culture at large in which both leaders and followers are embedded and, as such, are open to those institutional forces that create and disseminate "business" news and information. In this research we sought to explore the construction of leadership images as it is related to changing organizational performances. We focus here on the popular business press as an influential agent in this process.

The Importance of Media for the Social Construction

of Leadership

Many social analysts have recognized the importance of mass media in shaping views of ourselves and the world around us (e.g., Lippmann, 1921; Lazarsfeld and Merton, 1948; McLuhan and Fiore, 1967). Research in mass communication has shown that the media influence people's cognition in a variety of ways (Katz, 1980; Roberts and Maccoby, 1985). The media may determine what issues are important and set agenda for what the public thinks about (e.g., McCombs and Shaw, 1972), transmit knowledge and information (e.g., Alper and Leidy, 1970), reinforce or crystalize existing beliefs (Klaper, 1960), change existing beliefs (Paisley, 1981), and cultivate perceptions of the nature of social reality (Noelle-Neumann, 1973, 1974; Gerbner et al., 1978).

The last decade has witnessed an unprecedented growth in the level and type of media coverage devoted to matters of organization and management. Interested publics are now routinely served by various business media outlets, perhaps most conspicuously by a business press with mass appeal. According to the Standard Rate and Data Service, the six-month average circulation in 1989 of the Wall Street Journal was 1.93 million, that of Fortune, Business Week, and Inc. were .707, .870, and .754 million, respectively. In addition to such dedicated business publications, popular newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times and Time, with their own huge circulations (1.17 and 1.68 million), regularly feature business and management reports. Such mammoth figures are complemented by the extensive reach and appeal of television and other mass media outlets.

While an ostensible mission of the business media is to provide facts and information about business organizations, it is clear theat business journalism extends into areas well beyond simple reporting, transmitting to us a variety of deeper messages regarding organizations and their functioning. Media analysts have recognized its ideological and constructive aspects (Caudwell, 1971; Gramsci, 1971; Altheide, 1976; Hall, 1977; Williams, 1977; Fishman, 1980; Jensen, 1987).

The media achieves its impact through its consideration of and interaction with the audience. News organizations are directly dependent on market forces and appeal directly to popular opinions (Schudson, 1978; Gans, 1979). To maintain the allegiance of the audience, news selection and treatment has to take into account its viewing and reading behavior (Gans, 1979) and be responsive to its needs and gratifications (e.g., Katz, Blumer, and Gurevitch, 1979; Kennan and Hadley, 1986). Furthermore, the interpretation of meanings by readers is not passive reception or discovery of what is inherent in the news but active interaction with the text involving pre-existing cognition and attitudes, previous and current expectations, and the nature of the perceived social and physical environment (Dervin, 1981; Swanson, 1981).

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