Actor-Network Theory as a Newsroom Method Explained … by a Phillies World Series Slogan
Posted by chanders on October 21, 2008
Prefatory note 2: I am a Cleveland Indians fan.
Tell your average journalist that your research method is going to be one which objects are treated the same as people, you’re likely to be laughed at, at best, or kicked out of your nice little ethnographic perch, at worst.
The only solution, it would seem, is to approach the subject through a prism that nearly all metropolitan reporters can understand: baseball. In this case, through the prism of the National League Champion Philadelphia Philles. Or more specifically, though their playoff slogan: “why can’t us?” I know, I know, it’s grammatically incorrect. But, as in so many things in Philadelphia, that seems to be exactly the point.
The back story from Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Peter Mucha:
“It began as a caller’s remark just last Thursday. In short order, a local sports blog and one of the nation’s leading sports blogs began singing its praises as a Phillies rally cry. Then, T-shirts and mugs were designed to get out the message, and hundreds of items have already been sold, raising money for charity. Then it spread to radio, Facebook, print and ESPN.
Have folks found the perfect slogan for the Fightin’ Phils?
Even if – or because – it’s ungrammatical.
Judge for yourself: It’s ‘Why Can’t Us?’”
Mucha’s story, which went on to be featured on the front page of Philly.com, noted that it was quite possible that the slogan could become the official Phillies playoff slogan, and quoted local blogger Dan Levy, who hoped that the phrase would get mentioned during the game. Philly.com also asked its readers to weigh in on an online poll, asking “Is ‘Why Can’t Us?’ a great Phillies rally cry?”
Now … a traditional analysis of news production processes, one steeped in several generations of academic social constructionism, would argue that the Philadelphia news media “created” the “Why Can’t Us” meme, and that if it ended up becoming the Phillies World Series slogan this would represent another case of the powerful media creating “reality” out of “nothing.” A slightly more nuanced, technologically hip version of the same argument might make the claim that while blogs play a role in creating social reality, their efforts are meaningless until their work is ratified by the conventional, “mainstream media.” A second, more old-fashioned analysis would conclude that the “Why Can’t Us” slogan wasn’t created by the Philadelphia media at all, it was created by a caller on XM Satellite radio, and anyway, if it became popular that that only showed that it was a great slogan in the first place. We can see this argument play out, most seriously, in the periodic complaints of losing Presidential candidates who start to blame the media for their flailing campaigns, as well as the push back (usually from the winning side) claiming that the candidate who lost was “inherently flawed.”
This debate, while it might have once been useful, has grown increasingly stale over the past decade. I’ve tried to avoid it entirely by adopting a methodology known within studies of science, technology, and society (STS) as actor-network theory (ANT). I’ve tried not the let ANT dominate my fieldwork in Philadelphia, but have tried to keep it in the back of my head at all times as a form of guidance and corrective. ANT began as a way for anthropologists and sociologists to study the construction of scientific facts inside laboratories. I, and a few others, are starting to try to use ANT as a way to study the construction of news facts inside newsrooms.
Here are some of the main tenets of Actor-Network theory, adopted for use with news media production:
- ANT places objects and subjects, things and people, on the same ontological level. In other words, it gives objects agency. These entities are called “actants.”
- ANT refuses to draw lines between insiders and outsiders; it embraces the instability and uncertainty of group boundaries.
- News facts ultimately amount nothing more than an assembled network of actants (subjects and objects). The longer the news network, the more powerful the news fact becomes. Additionally, it helps to have “hard” actants, ie, “objects,” on the side of your network.
- ANT– as noted above– tries to dispense with the tired debate between social constructionists and social realists
I admit that this is all pretty abstract. So let’s apply these insights to the Peter Mucha story “Is ‘Why Can’t Us?’ new Phils rally cry?”
- ANT places objects and subjects, things and people, on the same ontological level.
Here’s a list of some of the things a traditional media analysis of the above story might consider:
The Philadelphia Inquirer / Philly.com and maybe … Marty from Delaware.
Now here’s a list of some of the things an ANT analysis would include in its analysis:
Peter Mucha / The Philadelphia Inquirer / Philly.com / Marty from Delaware / Sports Center /XM Satellite Radio / Dan Levy / The 700 Level / Deadspin / T-shirts/ mugs / 609Design Shop / Cafe Press / hoodies / a dog T-shirt / an infant bodysuit / a large mug / Philebrity / Facebook / The news article “Is ‘Why Can’t Us?’ new Phils rally cry?” / The website “http://www.philly.com/philly/hp/news_update/20081021_Is_Why_Cant_Us__new_Phillies_rally_cry_.html”
- ANT embraces the instability and uncertainty of group boundaries.
Would you include blogs, Facebook, and Sports Center in your media analysis? How could you not? Rather than attempting to answer the question of “who counts as a journalist,” an ANT inspired analysis can simply turn our attention to the manner in which various journalistic actants interact, network, and define themselves in practice. And all this only starts to matter when you conclude that …
- News facts ultimately amount nothing more than an assembled network of actants (subjects and objects).
How did “Why Can’t Us” become a powerful contender for the “official” world series slogan? After all, it’s nothing more than, as John Durham Peters might put it, “words spoken into the air.” In this case, however, the sign “why can’t us” “enrolled” XM Satellite Radio into its network, along with the blogger Dan Levy, his blog The 700 Level , the bigger blog Deadspin (and by bigger here we simply mean “an object with a bigger network”), Sports Center, and quite importantly a series of “hard” objects like mugs and dog t-shirts. The blog website CafePress, not a journalistic blog at all, then provides “instant attachment” (thanks Lucas!) to the various objects not networked into what was just a breath of air, “why can’t us.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer, then, takes a set of already solid news facts (called in ANT, “black boxes”) — the slogan, the blog posts about the slogan, the people talking about the slogan, the merchandise– and performs its own act of enrollment, adding its own interviews and sets of weblinks to the mix, and creating a “news story” out of a series of formerly disparate objects. This story, “Is ‘Why Can’t Us?’ new Phils rally cry?” or more accurately, “http://www.philly.com/philly/hp/news_update/20081021_Is_Why_Cant_Us__new_Phillies_rally_cry_.html” has now become its own object, and is ready to be enrolled in any number of additional networks. Furthermore, the slogan itself has gained an additional ally, the Philadelphia Inquirer.
- Finally, ANT tries to dispense with the tired debate between social constructionists and social realists.
Looking at the work it took to assemble the news story discussed above, can anyone doubt that the story was “constructed”?? Can anyone who has witnessed the painstaking labor carried out by reporters, as they write a news story, have any doubt that reporters “construct” the news? And yet, this should not be seen as a criticism that the above story is “false,” or that it is “only social in nature” or “nothing more than rhetoric.” The story above is, indeed, about words, ideas, and slogans … but it is also about slogans that have become “hard,” through XM radio, and have been hardened again, through weblogs. It is a story about mugs and doggie t-shirts. And the story itself, eventually, becomes an “object,” made out of a bunch of other objects, which can then be enrolled in all manner of networks.
As a concluding note: perhaps “Why Can’t Us” won’t be the Phillies slogan after all. A new set of actors– the average local reading public– has started to weigh in about the choice on Philly.com, and their reaction has been highly negative. Will they create an actor network strong enough to halt the momentum towards “Why Can’t Us”? Only time will tell.