Channel noise may be omnipresent and aggravating in mass communication, but no more so than semantic or psychological noise. As described earlier, semantic noise is interference within the communication process itself, within the human sources and receivers of the communication. In mass communication, this type of interference is inevitable, if only because audiences, individually and collectively, have so many different expectations of their mass media. Likewise, from the sources’ perspectives, semantic noise occurs whenever the audiences do not appear to be receiving and responding to carefully crafted messages the way the senders had hoped.
Earlier, we listed some reasons for semantic noise in interpersonal communication; language barriers, differences in education, socioeconomic status, residency, occupation, age, experience, and interest. Semantic noise in mass communication differs both quantitatively. and qualitatively from that in interpersonal communication. With 80 many people composing a mass audience, it is impossible to pinpoint a given message toward any specific individual’s’ complete set of value~: interests, needs, expectations, moods, life experiences, and language ability.
However, mass media do try. That they succeed at all is because they employ simplicity and commonality in their messages, aiming at the lowest common denominators of audiences’ values, interests, and so forth.
Consider news, for instance. “Journalese,” the style in which thedaily newspaper is written, is an example of simplicity. The most significant and most captivatU1.gfacts are placed in the lead or top paragraph as attention getters. The “who, what, when, where, why, and how” (the five Ws and II) are addressed early in the story so a time-pressed reader can skim without missing the really pertinent data. The balance of the article is composed of . additional data in decreasing order of significance, in an inverted pyramid of presumed interest and newsworthiness. By and large, the words used are simple and denotative, the sentence structure .uncomplicated, and the paragraphs brief. A simple style aimed at a mass audience is designed to convey maximum information requiring minimal reader effort
Broadcast media use a similar formula to minimize semantic noise. Television anchors headline their stories with simplistic, attention-grabbing devices (“Five area residents are dead following a blazing car crash; we’ll give you the details after these commercial messages”). They then “back into” their story using fewer words than the newspaper writer, but relying heavily upon graphic video to convey the total message. Frequently, reporters on the scene will wrap up their thirty- to ninety-second news item with a didactic “kicker,” letting viewers in on the real significance of the story. The graphic video, the pace and tone of the report, and the minor editorializing at the conclusion are standard operating procedure, and are therefore part of the presumed contract between broadcast news producers and most consumers. The producers simplify the world’s complexities, and package them so the news consumers’ common interests and tastes are fulfilled.
Other techniques of simplicity and commonality are found in mass communication. The clearest example is seen on network television, although it is by no means restricted to this medium. This is the lowest common denominator, wherein television’s programming content is theoretically aimed at that audience intelligence or interest level that will attract and hold the greatest number of viewers. Much of the criticism of television programming is directed toward a bland and sometimes mindless array of situation comedies, prime-time soap operas, law enforcement dramas, and celebrity specials, all interspersed with simplistic, catchy commercials. Whether this diet is all that bad is speculator, but it certainly is an example of purposeful appeal to the presumed lowest common-denominator of a vast and invisible audience in an attempt to overcome semantic noise
The sophisticated means by which the mass media package reality, entertainment, and persuasion with simplicity and commonality would seem to break down semantic noise. That – may be true if media satisfy the largest common collectivity of audience interests. But, media efforts to be all things to all people inevitably result in, at best, an incomplete and superficial delivery of the goods — i.e., news goods, entertainment goods, advertising goods, and cultural goods. Our discussions of news, entertainment, advertising, and media ethics are replete with examples of semantic noise-how readily communication backfires, or short-circuits, despite all efforts to the contrary, With this breakdown in communication, we can see what is known in the science of thermodynamics as entropy: the tendency of a system to move from a state of order to one of disorder or chaos.
Having said that semantic noise and entropy are inevitable in mass communication, it might seem appropriate for us to give up and condemn the media for arrogantly pretending they are successfully serving society’s needs. We would do better to attempt to understand the numerous and subtle ways in which such breakdowns occur, and the means by which intelligent consumers and dedicated communicators can work to overcome-or at least diminish-the inevitable. As a start in that direction, we should consider the role and influence of media gatekeepers, those individuals who sift and sort through the available media fare and then package it for consumption.
Gate keeping has generally been associated with the news, specifically with newspapers. The editors are the gatekeepers of the newspaper. They determine what the public reads, or at least what is available for them to read. The events they bypass are events that never happened as far as the public is concerned. Society’.s exposure to the day’s reality and fantasy is in the gatekeepers’ hands. Theirs is a prime responsibility. I Editors constantly have an eye on the audience as they sort through the day’s events. They tend to place emphasis on the unusual, the sensational, and the spectacular, as well as on the criminal and the deviant. These types of stories historically make good reading; subscribers like them. Within the severe space limitation in which editors operate, they sometimes find they must forego a story on zoning controls in favour of a gory three car accident, or pass up a scientific breakthrough for an axe murder. This is because the number of pages available for news is .determined by the amount of advertising that has been Bold. Typically, only 40 per c,ept of the paper can be devoted to news.
Before an editor gets a story, the reporter has already exercised a fonn of gate keeping in the selection and presentation of facts. No matter how objective the reporter has tried to be, something of that individual and his or her orientation has crept into the story. No two reporters will write the same story; more broadly, no two observers will see the same thing.: Thus, the public’s view of an event will be colored to a degree by the kind of fact-finding glasses the reporter wore
Editorial policy is also a form of gate keeping. Different newspapers have different values. Two examples that come readily to mind are the “A” and the “B”. The “A” prides itself on completeness and detail in its substantive reporting. It plays down the sensational and deviant in the interest of propriety, taste, and thoroughness. On the other hand, the “B”, as a matter of policy, emphasizes the sensational, the odd, the different. Both approaches constitute forms of gate keeping.
These examples illustrate how media tend to specialize in order to reach selective audiences. Gatekeeping activities reflect this specialization. Magazines and radio stations further emphasize this principle. Each has developed a format of appeal to a specific audience, and audiences differ. Some stations play rock ‘n’ roll, some classical music, some “oldies but goodies.” These stations are not free to depart from their format, except at the risk of losing their established audiences.
Magazines also have equally well defined formats to appeal to specific audiences: Vogue for the fashion-conscious, Field and Stream for the outdoor buff, Cosmopolitan for the unmarried working woman. Such audiences have grown to expect a certain point of view from these periodicals, and editors screen and prune all the available material-to come up with the exact contents their readerships expect. There are no articles on fly-fishing in Mademoiselle, no economic forecasts in Popular Mechanics.
Magazines and radio are as selective in what they present as the selective audiences they serve, and this is a form of gate keeping
Programmers of prime-time television wrestle with what to air and what kind of a balance to strive for. From hundreds of potential shows — serials, specials, dramas, situation comedies, police shows, mysteries, and news magazines shows–they must each screen out a dozen or so for evening viewing.In television news, producers are affected by the limitations on time in the same way newspaper editors are affected by space. The result is highly fragmentary. Newscasters have little time for headline news representing perhaps no more than 2 or 3 percent of the total news of the day.
Even book publishers and movie producers who cater to a self-selective, numerically unpredictable audience have their gate keeping problems. From hundreds of manuscripts, scree plays, and scenarios that come to their attention from authors and agents, solicited and unsolicited, they must select those to be published or produced. The public will never know of the remaining hundreds, the thousands in a year, that Cailed to be approved. For audiences, they never existed, dying before birth From all this two things become apparent concerning the gate keeping function. First, it is limiting in that it restricts what the public is exposed to as an audience, whether in news, television programmers, movies, books, or radio. Due to the marvelous diversity of the media, however, a certain balance of exposure is achieved in the aggregate from so many media catering to so many different audiences. Second, the gate keeping function is subjective, personal. It is the judgment of a surrogate substituted for that of the audience, and is basically a professionally educated guess as to what the public will like or react. to.