Mostly when writing this column, I apply theories often used in sociology, economics and organizational communication. This, of course, makes sense since I’m a media sociologist who mostly studies how economic models affect people working in news.
In writing classes, all professors say the same thing: Write what you know. I’m just following directions, man. But, still, as a professor in a journalism department, it might seem kind of odd that I focus on theories from other disciplines. But it’s not, really.
You see, the academic study of anything communication-related is relatively new. While people have been studying various forms of the hard sciences or philosophy or political science for far more than a century at least, communication research dates back roughly 100 years. And those of us who study the field, tend to do so from the framework of other areas. I work with political scientists, data scientists and psychologists, mainly. In general, most theories used in studies of mass communication come from other areas.
But even though we’re a relatively new field, we do have some of our own theories. And today we’re going to illustrate the difference between the great play of Chrissy versus the not-so-great play of Ben with agenda-setting theory.
Agenda setting, you see, takes us back to some of the earliest work in journalism studies. While agenda-setting research really began in the late 1960s through some seminal work by a couple of University of North Carolina scholars, many people trace the idea back to the great Walter Lippmann.
Before I describe exactly what agenda-setting theory explains, let’s talk about the hypodermic needle. You hear this theory called a lot of things, but we’ll go with the hypodermic needle, which the great Harold Lasswell introduced to the world in the late 1920s. You see, the idea behind early journalism research focused on the opinion that media have direct effects on people. Basically, these scholars and the theories they created fundamentally argued, for example, if you saw violence on television, you want to go be violent. Of course, this isn’t true. The effects of media are far more nuanced. So here comes agenda setting.
The basic, most underlying idea of agenda-setting theory is that the media doesn’t tell us how to think, but what to think about. The theory states the media gathers all this information and then decides how to shape it and then delivers it to people. We as media consumers then know what to think about, but not how to think about. Essentially, the media sets the agenda to think about, but doesn’t tell us how to think about the agenda; that’s determined by a whole lot of factors … more than we can get into here.
So what does this have to do with Survivor? Well, people also need to understand this. Nobody likes to be told what to do. And the best Survivor players never tell others how to think, but they often subtly tell them what to think about.
By far the biggest moment, the one editors wanted us to see, of the last episode happened during Ben and Chrissy’s conversation. Chrissy oh-so-nicely tells Ben others feel steamrolled by his opinion. Without any kind of self-awareness, Ben huffs, “No they don’t.” During this episode, Ben tries to communicate with others by telling them how to think. He doesn’t tell them what’s important; he just tells them what to do. That’s not effective. You can make people think what you want that way.
Remember when Chrissy wanted JP (Winner Pick™) to vote out Roark? She never tells JP what to do, to vote for Roark. Instead, Chrissy tells JP what to think about. Right? She says that Roark talked about an all-girls alliance, knowing that would make JP want Roark out. It works.
These two little anecdotes illustrate the difference between Ben and Chrissy. In the end, after this episode, I think we can see this ain’t going to end well for Ben. It’s unfortunate because Ben seems like a good dude, but he doesn’t understand how communication effects work. You simply can’t tell people what to do. Our minds don’t work that way. We don’t like to receive information in that way. If Ben simply talked about challenges and how his alliance needed to win them, he might have been able to subtly make people realize the threat of Cole.
Anyway, that’s it for theory this week. Sorry about missing last week … the amount of work preparing for Thanksgiving break took too much of my time. But I hope you all had a great holiday and we’ll talk every week until this, um, mediocre (?) season concludes.
Here’s where I think remaining players stand right now:
And that’s it for this week. Let’s talk next week. Enjoy sleeping off the holiday hangover and have a great week of work.
Pat Ferrucci started watching Survivor when episode two of Borneo first aired. He's seen every episode since. Besides recapping here, he'll be live-tweeting this season from the Mountain Time Zone. Why? Because nobody cares about the Mountain Time Zone except when they want to ski. Follow him @PatFerrucci for Survivor stuff and tweets about anything and everything that enters his feeble mind.