“The feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status… The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close.” — Tyler Cowen
The first time I read Cowen’s statement, in the original blog post from which it is quoted here, I thought it shallow, or at least facile. But the context the source writer gives it makes the observation come alive.
I can see now how status — the social pecking order — and especially in-group/out-group psychology dominate the behavior of newspaper readers and writers.
In fact, the psychology of social status might explain a particular oddity I have noticed in letters to the editor. That oddity is the occasional letter that reads just like a TV or radio commercial sounds. As if the letter writer had internalized Madison Avenue logic to the point of mistaking advertising persuasion for formal argument.
The psychology of social status might also explain how online commenting systems seem to predictably de-evolve into forums dominated by personal confrontations and vendettas.
But I think that even if social status is a prime mover of journalism, a root cause, we should still expect more from journalists and from ourselves. The craft of writing and communication is more than 4,000 years old, and there are far better examples of it that we see commonly in today’s media.