Manufacturing the news

In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel J. Boorstin explains how the last century has created a demand from readers that
papers be full of news. If there is no story about war, natural disaster or assassination, reporters were to come up with think pieces – elaborate articles constructed of facts and speculation about an issue or an event that may happen or is scheduled to happen.

George W. Bush's Thanksgiving in Iraq. The story that the turkey was plastic was later debunked by snopes.com.
George W. Bush’s Thanksgiving in Iraq. The story that the turkey was plastic was later debunked by snopes.com.

This introduced into the public sphere pseudo-events, things that are arranged or brought about merely to attract publicity or for the entertainment value they generate.

Characteristics of the pseudo-event are:

  1. It is not spontaneous but comes when someone plans, or incites it.
  2. It is planned primarily (but not always) with the purpose of being reported, or reproduced.
  3. Its relationship to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. (Does the statement really mean what it says? Without ambiguity a pseudo-event is not interesting.)
  4. Usually a self-fulfilling prophecy. (For example, drawing attention to a hotel’s 30th anniversary celebration by saying it is a distinguished institution actually makes it one.)

A recent historical example is U.S. President George W. Bush attempting to improve Americans’ approval of his administration and its policies with numerous pseudo-events. It has been charged that everything leading up to the war in Iraq was preplanned to scare the public by convincing people that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, even though, weeks after the war started, none were discovered.

“Nov. 28, 2003, Bush made a surprise Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops in Iraq, posed with fake turkey to show just how thankful he really was,” Kleo Nikolaidis wrote in the Pseudo Events in Politics blog. “Two hours later, he was on his way to good old America.”

  • Do you think that pseudo-events are more common in the news industry than we think?
  • Do you think pseudo-events hinder more newsworthy stories from bubbling up to the surface?

Maria Silva, Levi Gogerla,
Sam Oleschuk, Jazmin Tremblay

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7 thoughts on “Manufacturing the news

  1. I definitely think that pseudo events prevent real news from being covered as much as they should simply because pseudo stories often have more appeal. It’s natural that we would rather read a light hearted story over a heartbreaking one and this is what PR offers us. I think these events do have their place in today’s news but due to the sheer lack of media literacy they can end up taking over completely.

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  2. I think that pseudo events are a bit of a distraction from more pressing matters. Pseudo events are also far easier to cover and get a quality story. A newsroom will always follow up on a city press release or a attend a press conference for an important announcement. They still matter and have value. The more newsworthy stories become harder to bubble up to the surface when your staff is decreased every year and you find three other people in your department. Smaller newsrooms will only increase the coverage of these pseudo events.

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  3. Yes, I think that Pseudo events are more prevalent in the journalism industry than we may realize. They are an easy way, even a bit of a cop-out, to get a story that is quick and interesting. It’s all about entertainment value. There are some pseudo-events that need to be covered and are of some kind of substance, but I believe that they hinder the more newsworthy stories from being covered. It’s unfortunate that many pseudo events take away from more important issues that may be getting overlooked.

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  4. I do believe that pseudo events are much more common than the average person realizes. Sometimes they can be important, other times not. However, I do believe that at times they distract us from more important stories, or stories that should draw more attention.

    Unfortunately, with the way news is changing, pseudo stories are becoming more and more regular. What we refer to as news is no longer the hard-hitting news it once was. There’s still “hard” news, definitely, but it’s being buried by “soft” news. There’s definitely a place for soft news, don’t get me wrong, but there comes a time when there’s just too much.

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  5. Pseudo-events seem to make up most of the media circus these days, with many people looking to exploit the media’s tendency to report on the “interesting” rather than the “vital”. The problem with not reporting on these stories is that other media organizations likely will, resulting in a loss of viewership to the lower form of news. Pseudo-events fit nicely into the sensationalized media platform of today, and, using the perfect example of George Bush and the turkey, allow the news organizations to have a field day engaging in floccinaucinihilipilification, and yet, wasting several hours doing so while potentially ignoring something more worthwhile and newsworthy.

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  6. I think anything that isn’t contextual examined or biting may as well be an ad. Overall there’s a lot of manufactured events, but we sometimes get news of people with their pants down. Though that in itself could just be an inadvertent in their opposition. Either anecdotal or tragic news seem to be non manyfactured. I think pseudo events are harmful in that they masquerade promotion as information.

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  7. In Digital Disconnect, Robert McChesney notes that sixty years ago, the number of public relations professionals to journalists was 0.75 to 1. Over the years, that ratio was turned on its head to the point that, in 2012, journalists were outnumbered 4 to 1. We live at a time when press releases are reprinted verbatim because newsrooms are understaffed, overworked, and unable to keep up with the spin they get from their media and public relations counterparts.

    We saw real-time evidence of this shift in our own backyard when a handful of journalists, including veteran CBC reporter and Legislature Press Gallery President John Archer, jumped ship to joined the NDP after the orange crush toppled the PCs in the last provincial election.

    On top of that, technological advances have allowed PR reps, politicians, and “official sources” to bypass media scrutiny and influence public discourse by communicating to the people directly. Think of prolific President-elect Donald Trump’s tweets, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 24 Seven video series, and current PM Trudeau’s social media savvy and penchant for selfies.

    If the trend continues, we’re going to see more pseudo-events passed off as news, effectively burying the kind of adversarial and investigative stories we need to keep the movers and shakers in check.

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