Beth Gharrity Gardner received a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Irvine in 2016 and holds a B.A. in sociology and Africana studies from New York University. Studying culture in politics, social movements, and the sociology of talk (i.e., as data, a method, and a phenomenon), her research explores the ways in which diverse political actors struggle to achieve influence in public spheres and institutional settings that routinely privilege political elites. Reflecting these interests, Beth’s dissertation, titled “Speaking for the public: How the media constructed controversy and consensus about abortion from 1972 through 1994,” analyzes how reporters rhetorically position themselves relative to their sources, the audience, and the issue through what they write in news stories. She has co-authored publications that have appeared in the Annual Review of Sociology, Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, and the Oxford Handbook of Social Movements, among others. Beth is currently submitting portions of her dissertation as well as research on the impacts of civic associations cross-nationally for publication. Her work with the Centre involves the nexus between citizenship, social movements, and public discourse.
Citizenship Lecture December 1, 6pm | Campus Griebnitzsee, House 7, Room 2.27
Speaking for the Public: The Media's Construction of Consensus and Controversy in the American Abortion Debate
Mediated encounters among political contenders in the mass media public sphere are decisive in shaping the dynamics and outcomes of political contention. Importantly, though, while political actors want to make the news, they cannot do so as they please. While mass media attention is crucial for political influence, the character of coverage can benefit actors – portray them as reasonable, legitimate, or politically serious – as well as discredit them as combative or beyond the pale of political acceptability. The American media have long wielded this power and yet, how and when reporters exercise these judgments when constructing news stories has not been made clear. Building on previous scholarship, I argue that the media "performance of objectivity" is key to understanding the character of media coverage that different actors receive. More specifically, I argue that to perform their objectivity, journalists adopt one of two roles: either that of "neutral observer" or that of "guardian of consensus." Scholars have paid attention to the first role but not the second. My work addresses this gap through a mixed method analysis of mainstream newspaper coverage of the American abortion debate from 1972 through 1994, which takes into account the quality of rhetoric attached to different sources (including the authors writing the stories), across article characteristics, and over time. I find that journalists enact their commitment to objectivity not by being impartial but by being partial (to their understanding of shared public values). More generally, reporters privilege certain political positions over others or themselves make normative statements not because they eschew objectivity, but rather because they assume that issues, actors, or events that have not entered the sphere of legitimate controversy should be covered in a different way than those that have become objects of legitimate controversy. Extrapolating from these findings provides a useful backdrop for interpreting the performance of the American mainstream media in the recent presidential election.