On Television, Pierre Bourdieu

Like the advent of the radio before it, the emergence of television news broadcast changed the media and communications landscape in a pioneering way. The rise of national, international and 24-hour news cycles in the past few decades alone have changed the way the public expects the media to function. Pierre Bourdieu examines the state of news broadcasts and the way its wide dissemination of news was like nothing that came before it in his essay “On Television.” As far as the content that it provides as part of a for-profit business model, he points out that television news follows the same standard of coverage that newspapers and national magazines used — “news” that doesn’t offend any one party or power too much, like weather updates. However, what changed with broadcast mediums is that viewers were literally able to put a face and a voice to a name, leading TV anchors and hosts to become representatives of middle class moralities. These “spiritual guides to life,” as Bourdieu put it, is even more prevalent now with modern media’s obsession with fame and recognition.

Now, news broadcasts from international organizations to local TV stations look to anchors to serve as a major marketing tool to attract viewership. These professionals in the broadcast journalism industry in return act as celebrities to not only read the evening’s news, but also to sell a certain image and build up their own brand. This is not unlike the story of Oprah Winfrey, who started her career as a morning talk show host for a low-rated cable network. Over time, as we all know, she has used her influence in media to steadily gain more traction as a powerhouse media brand. The talk show host turned philanthropist turned network owner is repeatedly listed in the ranks of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country. In the past week alone, she has been touted as a potential bidder for the Los Angeles Clippers and released a joint venture with Starbucks for a new Teavana Oprah Chai Tea. Yes, Oprah is one of the ultimate rags to riches stories of American social mobility, and she started off in the broadcast journalism field.

Although Oprah might be the exception to the rule, the practice of news anchors creating their own personality brand to promote their organization is not. Katherine Bradshaw, James Foust and Joseph Bernt study this in their article “Local Television News Anchors’ Public Appearances.” The researchers discuss how anchors in local markets are shaped to be active parts of the community to further engage with the viewership. In addition to reading the news each night, they are also honed to make public appearances that might showcase a cause, the anchor’s station or the anchor’s personal career. Of the subjects of their study, the majority realized that this was a necessary part of their roles within the industry as a business. They not only accepted their obligations for public appearances, but they believed them to be beneficial to help sustain the community in which they worked, not to mention the ratings of their station. However, “despite valuing these time-consuming appearances, paradoxically, the anchors also acknowledged that their newscasts would be better if they themselves and additional staff could devote more time to production.” The researchers also found that 15 percent of the anchors they studied admitted to spending more time devoted to appearances than to news gatherings.

Broadcast news as a modern platform for the media is interesting in that it very clearly toes the line between delivering information to the public while also promoting their own brand through anchors and TV hosts. Although Bourdieu says that this is a problem that means diluted information, it is not necessarily the individuals or the organizations that make up this problem. On a larger holistic scale, it ultimately comes down to the institutional practices of news and service to the hegemony that lends to these types of standards within the industry.

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