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Mediating Exclusion through Journalism

Mediating Exclusion Through Journalism 
(2011-2013 SSHRC Standard Grant)

From the perspective of a critical sociology of media oriented through cultural studies, this research program posits journalism as a practice of exclusion. Through the textual analysis of newspaper reports of a series of media events, we propose to examine the ways in which journalists address their implied audience, forms of address that include some people and exclude others. These exclusions have serious repercussions for notions of citizenship, formal or informal, in local or global terms. They expose flaws in the perception of journalism as a public service and deficiencies in the treatment of the news media as a democratically oriented communications system. The impact is particularly significant for groups already socially excluded, such as refugees, undocumented immigrants and the poor. We focus on how these exclusions occur in news texts, what they portend for local and global citizenship, and what remedies would produce more inclusive journalism.

We highlight two interrelated modes of exclusion: representation and audience address. In the representational exercises of reporting and editing, journalists create a world, fill that world with actors and events, and orient audiences to the world they have created. Journalists are story-tellers to their communities, producing a particular news geography that outlines the contours of community, asserts social membership criteria, identifies centres of institutional power, and situates that community within local, regional and global networks of interaction. In so doing, they sketch a particular map of who and where 'we' are, putting particular events, people, institutions, concerns and solutions on the map, marginalizing and excluding others: those who are either not represented, or are depicted as marginal, deviant or threatening.

Journalism also excludes through audience address. The first reader of any newspaper is the imagined reader. Because news is what journalists deem to be significant to the information needs of an idealized audience, this imagined audience informs news judgment, story selection, story play, and the textual presentation of the story itself. Operating from conventional understandings of newsworthiness and who constitutes the imagined audience for their reports, journalists create categories of relevant and irrelevant, compatible and incompatible, same and other, divisions between what Hartley (1992) calls "We-doms" and "They-doms." Silverstone (2007) employs the concept of the "mediapolis" to describe the mediated public space in which we engage with sameness and otherness.

The exclusionary nature of these practices is at odds with journalism's standing as a core institution of democracy, its purported mission of public service and its place within a contemporary public sphere. They undermine the egalitarian potential of the mediapolis, deny certain people full membership within the polity, and extend the critique that mainstream news providers have become increasingly devoted to serving markets rather than publics.

We focus on two years of newspaper coverage (2010-2011) of the three themes in eight paired cities to provide a comparative critique of how late liberal democracies are reaching limits in their capacity to absorb difference and to suggest ways journalism might be made more inclusive. Through a series of textual analyses of newspaper reports in Vancouver-Los Angeles, Toronto-Miami, Montreal-New York, and London-Paris, and through workshop-group sessions combining researchers, journalists and members of socially-excluded groups in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, this research program seeks to identify, critique and propose ways to reduce the gaps journalists create between the public and the idealized audience.

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