Combating stigma in the printed news: contributions of direct quotations and journalistic story type to reader perceptions of a controversial gay man.
Abstract: This study investigates how presenting the same factual content with varying narrators, as required by harder- versus softer-news formats, influences the way readers perceive the gay male subject of an actual news story. Because previous social-psychological findings have suggested that people typically respond to others first as members of distinct groups and then later as individuals if and only if they have sufficient motivation for doing so, the expectation was that presenting the same factual content with varying narrators--effected through the quantity of direct quotations included from the news subject--would provide such motivation. The findings of this study support this contention.

Key Words: narrators, gay male, group membership, news formats
Subject: Gay men (Media coverage)
Homosexuality (Media coverage)
Narration (Rhetoric) (Research)
Authors: Hart, Kylo-Patrick R.
Powers, Elizabeth C.
Pub Date: 09/22/2001
Publication: Name: The Journal of Men's Studies Publisher: Men's Studies Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences; Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2001 Men's Studies Press ISSN: 1060-8265
Issue: Date: Fall, 2001 Source Volume: 10 Source Issue: 1
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 80159384
Full Text: Text as narrative has generated significant scholarly interest in recent decades. Because narrative theory focuses on the text of a communicative attempt and is concerned with general mappings of narrative structure, it has proven useful in explaining a wide range of media contents and types, including printed news stories. As McQuail (1994) notes, the main function of narrative is to help individuals make sense of experiential accounts, and it does so in two primary ways: (1) "by linking actions and events in a logical sequential or causal way"; and (2) "by providing the elements of people and places which have a fixed and recognizable (realistic) character" (p. 240). As such, McQuail explains, "narrative helps to provide the logic of human motive which makes sense of fragmentary observations, whether [they be] fictional or realistic" (p. 240).

Within the context of printed news stories, the term "text" can be defined in two different ways. The first way, as McQuail (1994) points out, refers broadly to the actual printed document itself. An alternate definition as proposed by Fiske (1987), however, calls for using the term "text" to describe the meanings and perceptions derived by the reader as a result of interacting with the printed message's content. Thus, identical media content is capable of producing somewhat different "texts" with regard to the meanings and perceptions experienced by different readers as a result of media exposure. This second way of defining the term "text," therefore, places its emphasis on the reception of printed messages rather than any sort of intrinsic meaning they may contain (McQuail, 1994).

Kozloff (1992) maintains that, in theory, every narrative can be divided into two distinct parts: (1) the "story" itself, which details what sorts of events happen to whom, and (2) the "discourse," which represents the way the story actually is told. In order to have a narrative, therefore, it is essential to not only have a tale to share, but also a narrator and a reader/listener (Kozloff, 1992). News reports are no exception. To date, however, little work has analyzed the impact that different narrators and alternate ways of telling the same news story can have on receivers' perceptions of the same factual news content, although it is believed that "identical story events can seem radically different depending upon the narrator's [point of view] and on the degree of the narrator's power, remoteness, objectivity, or reliability" (Kozloff, 1992, p. 85).

Although Fiske's view of text as narrative suggests that there can be an unlimited number of possible perceptions of the same set of basic facts, Kozloff's discussion of narrative theory and structure of discourse implies that the possible perceptions and reactions can be channeled by subtle variations in the form of the narrative and discourse. The goal of the present study is to explore the impact that varying narrators and alternate discourse of the same factual news content can have on receivers' perceptions of a stigmatized other (in this case, the subject of the news story).

News stories are "typically cast in narrative form, with principal and minor actors, connected sequences, heroes and villains, beginning, middle and end, signaling of dramatic turns, and reliance on familiar plots" (McQuail, 1994, p. 240). Yet despite this reliance on narrative structure, news stories typically can be placed into two basic categories: hard news and soft news. Hard news refers to traditional straight news stories, whereas soft news refers to human interest or entertainment-slanted features. A variation on the hard-news format is the hard-news sidebar, which frequently presents factual news content without direct quotations from sources and without excessive detail. A variation on the soft-news format is the first-person opinion piece, submitted by contributors or the general audience.

Each type of news story--hard-news sidebar, hard-news story, soft-news story, and first-person opinion piece--offers a different mix of narrator, structure of discourse, and treatment of basic facts. For instance, within the hard-news sidebar, the journalist frequently serves as sole dispenser of facts and sole narrator, without giving voice to news sources. Within the typical hard-news story, the journalist serves as the primary narrator while the journalistic sources serve as secondary narrators, having their stories presented through the use of a few carefully selected quotes. Furthermore, the structure of discourse in a hard-news story follows the inverted pyramid style, meaning that the most important facts are presented at the onset of the piece, followed by less important details and quotes. Within the typical soft-news story, the journalist and journalistic sources share the role of narrator nearly equally, and the story follows a less rigid structure. Within the first-person opinion piece, the role of professional journalist as narrator gives way to the voice of a responding reader as narrator, not restricted to a particular form.

GOAL OF THIS STUDY

In this exploratory study, we wished to examine how presenting the same factual content with varying narrators required by alternate news discourse--accomplished by presenting this content in harder-news versus softer-news formats--influences the way that readers perceive a stigmatized other. Accordingly, we decided to manipulate the use of direct quotations in presentations of the same factual news content, ranging from none or only a few direct quotations in the two harder-news formats to many or all-direct quotations in the two softer-news formats. This means that although the factual content and chronology of events remained the same in all four versions of the same news account, the number of direct quotations was varied. For example, whereas the harder-news stories included the sentence, "It all started in July, when Crane and Ryan Block, his partner of four years, began planning their October ceremony of commitment," the corresponding sentence in the two softer-news stories read, "`It all started in July, when Ryan Block, my partner of four years, and I began planning our October ceremony of commitment.'"

The news stories used in this study were constructed from actual news accounts of a high school music teacher in Michigan who was facing termination because parents and school administrators found out that he is gay. They state that on December 18, a Michigan board of education would be meeting to determine the fate of that school's music director--dismissal, disciplinary action, or retention without disciplinary action. The stories then detail the events leading up to that all-important meeting: How the music teacher transformed the school's failing music program into an award-winning object of pride; how a handful of parents mounted a campaign to gain support for the teacher's dismissal after it was learned that he is gay and was planning a commitment ceremony with his male lover; how some parents began pulling their children out of the teacher's band and choir classes after the commitment ceremony took place in late October; how the board of education met twice in closed sessions during late November and early December to hear statements from the community about the situation without ever inviting the teacher to speak for himself; how despite his reservations, the teacher requested to speak to the board members and met with them a week before their decision was to be delivered. The stories also explain that after the music director met with the board, the board's attorney presented the teacher with an offer to pay him through the end of the school year to leave quietly. When the teacher refused, the board responded with an offer to pay him through the following school year with benefits. Again, the teacher declined.

We selected the gay male "stigmatized other" as the subject of the news stories in this study because, as Fiske and Neuberg (1990) and others have suggested, people typically respond to others first as members of distinct groups, and then later as individuals if and only if they have sufficient motivation for doing so. It was our belief that presenting the same factual content with varying narrators, as required by harder- and softer-news formats and effected through the quantity of direct quotations included from the news subject, would provide this sufficient motivation in the softer-news conditions.

In the typical hard-news story and hard-news sidebar, where the source's voice is obscured by the overpowering voice of the journalist as narrator, the reader is offered little more than basic facts, which provide little motivation for the reader to perceive the subject of the news story as an individual. On the other hand, the soft-news story allows the subject's voice as narrator to more fully emerge, providing greater motivation for the reader to empathize with the subject and to relate to the subject as an individual, rather than simply as a member of a stigmatized group. This inclination to perceive the subject as an individual is maximized when reading a first-person opinion piece, for all the words presented are attributed directly to the writer of the piece. The objective of the study was to demonstrate that audience members respond to the same factual news content, when presented with alternate discourse requiring alternate narrators, in markedly different ways.

HYPOTHESIS

Our immediate hypothesis for this study was that, when asked how they think they would have voted if they had been members of the board of education on December 18, subjects in the softer-news conditions would indicate that they would be significantly less likely to vote for the teacher's dismissal or even for disciplinary action, as compared with subjects in the harder-news conditions, who should have less motivation to empathize with the teacher and to relate to him as an individual, rather than simply as a member of a stigmatized group. Our primary concern about such an approach was that social desirability would inhibit many subjects from revealing their true responses, as they tried to present themselves in the best, most open-minded light.

Accordingly, we decided to focus on the following question instead: "Based on the information in the article you read, which of the following do you think most likely was the Board of Education's decision on December 18?" The response options included dismissal of the teacher from his position as music director; some sort of disciplinary action against the teacher in his position as music director; retention of the teacher in his position as music director without disciplinary action or further threat of dismissal; and other (specify). We reasoned that as subjects in the softer-news conditions came to see past stereotypes, view the teacher as an individual rather than primarily as a member of a stigmatized group, and empathize with his plight, they would expect the members of the school board to respond similarly toward him and would also, therefore, expect the board members to react less harshly in their dealings with him, as compared with the expectations of subjects in the harder-news conditions. As a result, our ultimate hypothesis for this study was that there would be a statistically significant difference between the expected board decisions revealed by subjects in the harder-news versus softer-news conditions, with significantly more subjects in the softer-news conditions expecting board members to vote for retention of the teacher in his present position without disciplinary action or further threat of dismissal, as compared with members in the harder-news condition.

METHOD

To test this hypothesis, an experimental study was conducted. Subjects were asked to read a news article that was experimentally prepared to manipulate the voice of the narrator. The subjects then answered a series of questions, including the one concerning what type of action they believed the board of education most likely decided to take against the teacher described in the article.

PARTICIPANTS

Seventy-six individuals from undergraduate communication courses at a large mid-western university were recruited to participate in the study. The participants were randomly assigned to each of the four experimental conditions: hard-news sidebar, hard-news story, soft-news story, and first-person opinion piece. An equal number of students participated in each of the experimental conditions (N = 19 per condition). The students were informed that their participation was voluntary and that they would be reading a newspaper article and completing a short questionnaire that would be used to determine how journalists cover issues in the news. Fifty-eight percent of the participants were male, 74 percent were Caucasian, and 94 percent were upper-level undergraduates. Tests were conducted to determine whether gender, ethnicity, or class standing significantly affected the dependent variable. No significant effects were detected.

INDEPENDENT VARIABLE

The news articles presented to all four experimental groups were revised and condensed from actual printed news reports about the case of Gerry Crane, the Michigan music teacher whose homosexuality had been revealed, and about the school board that was trying to determine how best to respond to the situation. Each article presented contained the same headline, byline, and approximate length in all four experimental conditions. To help ensure that the sole experimental manipulation was the narrator's voice, the factual content and chronology of events remained the same in all stimulus conditions. The primary difference among the articles was the amount of material presented in the voice of the journalist versus the amount of material presented directly by the news subject in the form of direct quotations.

MEASUREMENT OF DEPENDENT VARIABLE

After reading the news story, subjects were asked to indicate how they believed the members of the board of education resolved this matter at their meeting on December 18. The specific question asked was, "Based on the information in the article you read, which of the following do you think most likely was the Board of Education's decision on December 18?" The possible response options, which corresponded to the real-life options stated by the board members, were dismissal of the teacher from his position as music director; some sort of disciplinary action against the teacher in his position as music director; retention of the teacher in his position as music director without disciplinary action or further threat of dismissal; and other (specify).

MEASUREMENT OF OTHER VARIABLES

In addition to the stimulus variable, several other variables were measured to rule out the possibility that relevant variables might be affecting the dependent variable. Because the issue of gay men being allowed to teach in public schools is a politically sensitive one, variables measuring strength and direction of political affiliation were obtained. A measure of political knowledge was also included, again to rule out the possibility that differences among treatment groups were being induced by variation in attention to political matters rather than by the experimental manipulation. Because homosexuality is sometimes considered to be a "moral" issue, religious affiliation was also measured. None of these factors were found to significantly affect the dependent variable.

To ensure that subjects were basing their responses on the information contained in the article they read rather than on extratextual knowledge obtained from external media exposure, a question was included to assess how much news coverage the participants had been exposed to regarding this music teacher and his situation at the Michigan high school. Three possible response options were included: a good deal of news coverage, some news coverage, and no news coverage at all. For individuals indicating that they had already heard about the music teacher and his situation prior to entering the experimental situation, a follow-up question inquired as to which media source (specific newspaper name, specific magazine name, specific television station, etc.) provided them with the majority of their information. In all, 91 percent of the participants indicated that they had been exposed to no prior news coverage, 9 percent indicated that they had been exposed to some prior news coverage, and no subjects indicated that they had been exposed to a good deal of prior news coverage. Having determined in advance that only responses of participants exposed to a good deal of prior news coverage would be withheld from statistical analyses, and noting that the participants with some prior exposure were distributed among experimental conditions, the researchers decided to consider all responses as valid in the statistical analysis phase of this study.

Finally, to help ensure that participants were basing their responses primarily on their reactions to the printed news content they read, rather than on reactions derived from first-hand interactions with close, non-heterosexual individuals in their own lives, a question was included which asked, "Do you consider yourself to be homosexual or bisexual, or do you have a close friend or relative who is homosexual/bisexual?" Only 16 percent of the subjects answered this question in the affirmative, with statistical analysis suggesting that this variable also did not significantly affect the dependent variable.

ANALYSIS

The data were subjected to a chi-square analysis with the experimental manipulation being the independent variable of primary interest. Appropriate measures of association were obtained.

RESULTS

A chi-square analysis was performed on the data, with the independent variable being type of news story read and the dependent variable being expected board decision on December 18. Before the chi-square analysis was conducted, however, responses from participants in the hard-news sidebar and hard-news story conditions were combined to form the more general category of "harder-news story," and responses from participants in the soft-news story and first-person opinion piece conditions were combined to form the category of "softer-news story." Because this was an exploratory study, such combining was done to help reduce problems associated with relying on only one particular exemplar of hard-news versus soft-news story types. As explained earlier, these groupings are quite logical, because the harder-news stories typically contain no or only a few direct quotations, whereas the softer-news stories typically contain numerous or all direct quotations. Accordingly, the two possible values of the independent variable subjected to the chi-square analysis were harder-news story and softer-news story. Although technically there were four possible response options for the dependent variable (dismissal, disciplinary action, retention without disciplinary action or further threat of dismissal, and other), only one subject offered a response that did not conform to the first three options. Because the participant's response ("a court case with the teacher winning") could not accurately be classified into one of the other three response options, it was excluded from the chi-square analysis to avoid violating the assumptions of the procedure regarding expected frequencies per cell.

With a Pearson chi-square statistic of 7.1794 and a corresponding significance value of .0276, the results of the chi-square analysis indicate that there is indeed an association between type of news story read and expected board decision, which is significant at the .05 level. Because type of news story read was being used to predict expected board decision in this instance, an examination of directional measures of association revealed statistically significant measures of the degree of statistical dependence. As previously stated, tests were conducted to determine whether gender, ethnicity, university class standing, religious affiliation, political affiliation, political knowledge, or first-hand interactions with close, non-heterosexual individuals significantly affected the dependent variable. No significant effects were detected.

In viewing the chi-square output, it is noteworthy that the pattern of results is opposite of what was predicted by the hypothesis of this study. Although a statistically significant difference was indeed found between the expected board decisions revealed by participants in the harder-news versus softer-news conditions as predicted, significantly more subjects in the softer-news condition expected board members to vote for the teacher's dismissal or for disciplinary action to be brought against him, as compared with subjects in the harder-news condition. Focus group interviews with a subset of the participants in this study, however, revealed that as participants in the softer-news condition began to empathize with the teacher and realized that the board members "had it in for him" (as one participant so aptly explained), they became especially concerned about his ultimate fate and therefore expected the board members to be even more harsh in their dealings with him, as compared with the expectations of participants in the harder-news condition, who lacked such empathic concern. As such, although it is in the direction opposite of that predicted by the hypothesis, this pattern of results nevertheless supports the contention that allowing a greater voice to members of historically stigmatized groups in American society, in the form of direct quotations in news stories, can effectively reduce the sense of "otherness" pertaining to such individuals as perceived by members of "dominant" social groups and increase the degree of empathy generated for such members of historically stigmatized groups.

DISCUSSION

The findings of this exploratory study are quite encouraging, for they suggest that even the most subtle of changes in the way printed news stories are presented may help combat negatively stereotypic reactions to news content pertaining to gay men, and possibly to other members of stigmatized groups in American society. Naturally, however, far more research needs to be conducted in this area to determine the specific elements of the reading encounter that are driving this apparent phenomenon, as well as the boundaries of the domain to which the findings can be generalized.

REFERENCES

Fiske, J. (1987). Television culture. London: Methuen.

Fiske, S. T., & Neuberg, S. L. (1990). A continuum of impression formation, from category-based to individuating processes: Influences of information and motivation on attention and interpretation. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 23, pp. 1-63). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Kozloff, S. (1992). Narrative theory and television. In R. C. Allen (Ed.), Channels of discourse, reassembled (pp. 67-100). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

McQuail, D. (1994). Mass communication theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Kylo-Patrick R. Hart, Director, Media Studies Research Center, University of Virginia's College at Wise, 1 College Avenue, Wise, VA 24293-4412 or kylo@virginia.edu.
KYLO-PATRICK R. HART
Director, Media Studies Research Center
University of Virginia's College at Wise
Wise, Virginia

AND

ELIZABETH C. POWERS
Department of Communication Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.