Digifesto

Tag: media

analysis of content vs. analysis of distribution of media

A theme that keeps coming up for me in work and conversation lately is the difference between analysis of the content of media and analysis of the distribution of media.

Analysis of content looks for the tropes, motifs, psychological intentions, unconscious historical influences, etc. of the media. Over Thanksgiving a friend of mine was arguing that the Scorpions were a dog whistle to white listeners because that band made a deliberate move to distance themselves from influence of black music on rock. Contrast this with Def Leppard. He reached this conclusion based by listening carefully to the beats and contextualizing them in historical conversations that were happening at the time.

Analysis of distribution looks at information flow and the systemic channels that shape it. How did the telegraph change patterns of communication? How did television? Radio? The Internet? Google? Facebook? Twitter? Ello? Who is paying for the distribution of this media? How far does the signal reach?

Each of these views is incomplete. Just as data underdetermines hypotheses, media underdetermines its interpretation. In both cases, a more complete understanding of the etiology of the data/media is needed to select between competing hypotheses. We can’t truly understand content unless we understand the channels through which it passes.

Analysis of distribution is more difficult than analysis of content because distribution is less visible. It is much easier to possess and study data/media than it is to possess and study the means of distribution. The means of distribution are a kind of capital. Those that study it from the outside must work hard to get anything better than a superficial view of it. Those on the inside work hard to get a deep view of it that stays up to date.

Part of the difficulty of analysis of distribution is that the system of distribution depends on the totality of information passing through it. Communication involves the dynamic engagement of both speakers and an audience. So a complete analysis of distribution must include an analysis of content for every piece of implicated content.

One thing that makes the content analysis necessary for analysis of distribution more difficult than what passes for content analysis simpliciter is that the former needs to take into account incorrect interpretation. Suppose you were trying to understand the popularity of Fascist propaganda in pre-WWII Germany and were interested in how the state owned the mass media channels. You could initially base your theory simply on how people were getting bombarded by the same information all the time. But you would at some point need to consider how the audience was reacting. Was it stirring feelings of patriotic national identity? Did they experience communal feelings with others sharing similar opinions? As propaganda provided interpretations of Shakespeare saying he was secretly a German and denunciation of other works as “degenerate art”, did the audience believe this content analysis? Did their belief in the propaganda allow them to continue to endorse the systems of distribution in which they took part?

This shows how the question of how media is interpreted is a political battle fought by many. Nobody fighting these battles is an impartial scientist. Since one gets an understanding of the means of distribution through impartial science, and since this understanding of the means of distribution is necessary for correct content analysis, we can dismiss most content analysis as speculative garbage, from a scientific perspective. What this kind of content analysis is instead is art. It can be really beautiful and important art.

On the other hand, since distribution analysis depends on the analysis of every piece of implicated content, distribution analysis is ultimately hopeless without automated methods for content analysis. This is one reason why machine learning techniques for analyzing text, images, and video are such a hot research area. While the techniques for optimizing supply chain logistics (for example) are rather old, the automated processing of media is a more subtle problem precisely because it involves the interpretation and reinterpretation by finite subjects.

By “finite subject” here I mean subjects that are inescapably limited by the boundaries of their own perspective. These limits are what makes their interpretation possible and also what makes their interpretation incomplete.

Follow the money back to the media

I once cared passionately about the impact of money in politics. I’ve blogged about it here a lot. Long ago I campaigned for fair elections. I went to work at a place where I thought I could work on tools to promote government transparency and electoral reform. This presidential election, I got excited about Rootstrikers. I vocally supported Buddy Roemer. Of course, the impact of any of these groups is totally marginal, and my impact within them even more so. Over the summer, I volunteered at a Super PAC, partly to see if there was any way the system could be improved from the inside. I found nothing.

I give up. I don’t believe there’s a way to change the system. I’m going to stop complaining about it and just accept the fact that democracy is a means of balancing different streams of money and power, full stop.

There is silver lining to the cloud. The tools for tracking where campaign donations are coming from are getting better and better. MapLight, for example, seems to do great work. So now we can know which interests are represented in politics. We can sympathize with some and condemn others. We can cheer for our team. Great.

But something that’s often omitted in analysis of money in politics is: where does it go?

So far the most thorough report I’ve been able to find on this (read: first viable google hit) was this PBS News Hour. It breaks it down pretty much as you would expect. The money goes to:

  • Television ads. Since airtime is limited, this means that political ads were being aired very early on.
  • Political consultants who specialize in election tactics.
  • Paid canvassers, knocking door-to-door or making phone calls to engage voters.

Interesting that so much of the money flows to media outlets, who presumably raise prices for advertising when candidates are competing for it with deep pockets. So… the mainstream media benefits hugely from boundless campaign spending.

Come to think of it, it must be that the media benefits much more than politicians or donors from the current financing system. Why is that? A campaign is a zero-sum game. Financially backing a candidate is taking a risk on their loss, and in a tight race one is likely to face fierce competition from other donors. But the outlets that candidates compete over for airtime and the consultants who have “mastered” the political system get to absorb all that funding without needing any particular stake in the outcome of the election. (Once in office, can a politician afford to upset the media?)

Who else benefits from campaign spending? Maybe the telecom industry, since all the political messaging has to run over it.

Maybe this analysis has something to do with why generating political momentum around campaign finance reform is a grueling uphill battle. Because the more centralized and powerful a media outlet, the more it has to gain from expensive campaign battling. It can play gatekeeper and sell passage to the highest bidder.

Taking it one step farther: since the media, through its selection of news items, can heavily influence voters’ perception of candidates, it is in their power to calibrate their news in a way that necessitates further spending by candidates.

Suppose a candidate is popular enough to win an election by a landslide. It would be in the interests of media outlets to start portraying that candidate badly, highlighting their gaffes or declaring them to be weak or whatever else, to force the candidate to spend money on advertising to reshape the public perception of them.

What a racket.