Do Journalists "Normalize" Something by Covering It?

It's an easy assumption to make, but research suggests it's not that simple.

Posted May 19, 2020

Do the news media “normalize” crackpot notions and extremist politics by covering them? Some media observers would answer yes, and they would warn journalists to reconsider what they pay attention to, and how much airtime they give to crazy or objectionable ideas.

But we should be careful about assuming that media attention creates a normalizing effect. It is just as likely that news coverage underscores the deviance or distastefulness of a contested topic. And what we know from cognitive processing research tells us that, in many cases, such “normalizing” claims tell us more about the critic than they do about what’s actually in the news media.

One of the latest complaints about journalists normalizing things perceived to be bad or dangerous comes from Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan, who recently lamented how President Trump has “played the media like a puppet.” Journalists are in thrall to the Trump drama, unable to figure out how to cover him without having him continually dominating the news narrative, she argued.

“We remain mesmerized, providing far too much attention to the daily circus he provides,” Sullivan wrote. “We normalize far too much, offering deference to the office he occupies and a benefit of the doubt that is a vestige of the dignified norms of the past” (Sullivan, 2020, paras. 8-9).

News audiences also have attacked journalists for having the audacity to write about neo-Nazis and members of other fringe groups in ways that “humanize” them. After the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, where neo-Nazis from all over the country gathered and marched with tiki torches chanting “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us!”, a New York Times reporter tracked down one of the marchers and wrote an extensive profile of him. The article included this passage describing the man, Tony Hovater:

In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak ’n Shakes, Mr. Hovater’s presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time when the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy, and belief that the races are better off separate (Faussett, 2017, para. 5).

The story drew a huge response. The Times was flooded with comments. Most of them were negative. One reader wrote on Twitter, “How to normalize Nazis 101!” Another wrote, “I’m both shocked and disgusted by this article. Attempting to ‘normalize’ white supremacist groups — should never have been printed!”

The Times’ national editor wrote a brief response to this outpouring. He said, “Whatever our goal, a lot of readers found the story offensive, with many seizing on the idea we were normalizing neo-Nazi views and behavior …" He went on: “The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think ... We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them” (Lacey, 2017, paras. 5, 6, 13).

Two areas of research, however, suggest that such claims of news stories having a normalizing effect are misguided:

  • Research in media sociology tells us how the perception of “deviance” is often a key element in how journalists define newsworthiness. For journalists and readers, this focus on potentially threatening ideas, events, groups, and agendas reflects a very basic—if not primal—urge to preserve personal safety. People routinely survey their environments for things that are deviant or unusual because they pose potential threats. Journalists fulfill people's innate desire to detect threats in the environment, keep informed about the world, and devise methods of dealing with those threats, whether real or potential. To downplay an existing “bad” behavior to avoid criticism would raise serious questions of professional ethics.
  • Research in cognitive psychology tells us how perceptions of bias often tell us more about the person making the claim than about what’s in the media. Through confirmation bias and other similar dynamics, we all are constantly “filtering” news content through our own prejudices, values, and assumptions. A common response is informed by the “hostile media phenomenon,” which posits that the more partisan or passionate I am on a given topic, the more likely I am to suspect that media coverage of that topic is hostile to my point of view. Research has demonstrated this audience response repeatedly over the decades on a wide range of topics.

All this is to say that any “normalizing news” claim may be on shaky ground and may not tell us much. Just because a journalist chooses to focus on some thing or behavior that individual news consumers find shocking, it does not follow that the subject of coverage is being normalized.

For the news media to “normalize” anything, the topic or thing must be treated as not deviant; it must be framed as something that is no longer a threat to the status quo, as something that has become routinized, and as something that has been, through its description and framing, literally moved out of the sphere of deviance, as media scholars have described it.

None of this arguably happened with the Times’ story about a neo-Nazi in Ohio. Rather, the article made us all pause to consider something that was already there, and that will continue to be present, whether we are aware of it or not. To suggest that a professional journalist should have suppressed what he found in the course of his reporting, to protect the sensibilities of some vague segment of his audience, would be a grave ethical lapse.

Sullivan is probably correct in her claim that the White House press corps has been “played like a puppet” by Trump. But it does not follow that reporting the ongoing drama has normalized otherwise deviant behavior. When the national news media devoted extensive news coverage to the separation of young children at our southern border, none of that coverage normalized the option of traumatizing 6-year-olds as an effective strategy to discourage the flow of migrants from Central American countries.

When the news media reported on President Trump’s idea of purchasing Greenland from Denmark, the number of news stories on the topic did not usher any American neo-colonialist fantasies into the mainstream of foreign policy debate.

And when the news media spotlighted the fact that President Trump took a Sharpie to a map projecting the path of Hurricane Dorian, in no way was said coverage suggesting that now it’s OK to doctor federal documents, or that a single president can now define his own weather reality.

In all these cases, the media spotlight arguably performed the opposite: It underscored the deviance of the behavior. The coverage was entirely premised on the assumption that norms are being violated. As responsible media consumers, we all need to take a moment before we leap to conclusions about what we think journalists are doing.

References

Fausset,   R.   (2017,  November  25).  A  voice  of  hate  in  America’s  heartland. The   New   York   Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/25/us/ohio-hovater-white-nationalist.html

Lacey, M. (2017, November 26). Readers accuse us of normalizing a Nazi sympathizer; we respond. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/26/reader-center/readers-accuse-us-of-normalizing-a-nazi-sympathizer-we-respond.html

Sullivan, M. (2020, April 28). Trump has played the media like a puppet. We’re getting better – but history will not judge us kindly. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/media/trump-has-played-the-media-like-a-puppet-were-getting-better--but-history-will-not-judge-us-kindly/2020/04/28/e709b1cc-88c6-11ea-ac8a-fe9b8088e101_story.html