zaterdag 23 september 1995

Media hypes A framework for the analysis of publicity waves.

Media hypes

A framework for the analysis of publicity waves.

Peter Vasterman

First published in the Dutch magazine Massacommunicatie, September 1995. IN DUTCH 


In this article the author tries to define the concept ‘media hype’ in the sense of news storms. His goal is to develop a theoretical framework for identifying and researching these media phenomenon. The most important questions are:
What are the characteristics of a media hype and in what is the difference between these news waves and the regular daily coverage of the media?
Is it (still) possible to make a distinction between ‘hype news’ and ‘real’ news?
Are there different kinds of media hypes and in what kind of patterns do they unfold? Are there similar phases in each publicity wave? What are the positive or negative results of a news craze? In this article Peter Vasterman explores the area.


A sudden increase in news about for instance sexual abuse, corruption, flesh-eating viruses or illegal immigrants might indicate that these social problems are getting worse, but in many cases something else is going on: the story has turned into a media hype. From that point on, news coverage on this subject seems to explode into a huge publicity wave, dominating front pages and sometimes causing fear or even panic among the audience. Media hypes are the result of a complicated interaction between the media and the society in which they function. The author tries to define the concept of media hypes and makes a distinction between occasional short term hypes and more structural publicity waves, reflecting changes in the social consensus. The framework developed in this article contains different theoretical tools for researching the different stages of a media hype.

Isolated incidents or signs of new developments?

For years there is no news at all about a specific subject, but then suddenly, there is a boom of articles, interviews and television reports. For many days or even weeks the media seem to be under the spell of only one news item. It is a front page story, commentators cross their swords and experts review the shocking stories of victims in talk shows. It’s the talk of the town, or even the nation. At the point the hype is peaking and every single TV station of newspaper is forced to join.

Violence in schools.

This might happen in the Netherlands with a theme like ‘violence at schools’: a few striking incidents are covered by the media and redefined as a signal for a new threatening development. Once there is this new definition the subject becomes a very powerful news theme and a media hype might be the result, that is, under certain circumstances.
The reports about the increasing violence at schools trigger a growing concern in society, but on the other hand it is this concern that leads to a sort of sensitizing of the media and the public. The result of this process is that every new incident -how ‘small’ it may be- that can be linked to this theme will be reported by the media. More stories and news reports about growing violence at schools will incite even more social concern. Parents will call for firm action by the authorities, who feel a pressure obliged to air strong opinions. Everybody fears an even stronger escalation of the problem after new incidents -again! - reach the front pages. All these actions, responses and opinions are of course covered by the media, boosting the news wave about this subject.

This whole process is based on the underlying assumption that violence at school is indeed increasing in the Netherlands and that something must be done to stop that. But in the case of a media hype it is not the violence at the schools that has grown, but the media or the social attention for this subject. The problem seems to grow because every day brings new stories about mobbing, bullying and fighting at schools. There seems to be an ‘epidemic of violence’ , but in fact only the social awareness of the problem has grown. Moral concepts about behavior are changing also, bullying once considered an inevitable part of the youth culture, is now part of new ‘intolerable violence’. Important in this process is also the broadening of the definition: every day more and more different ‘acts’ are lumped together under a catch-all category like ‘violence at the schools’.

A endless flow of exciting cases

A lot of news waves seem to show a similar process: not only in the case of more or less bizarre news items like flesh eating viruses (May 1994), crash tests with children’s bodies (December 1993), the killings of ‘incest’ babies in Holland (1994), but also in that of the more ‘regular’ news items like problems with the ‘flood’ of refugees, police corruption, sexual abuse of children, white collar crime, or even for ‘trendy’ diseases like whiplash injuries. In all these cases an interaction develops between media coverage and the responses on all kinds of levels in society.

Media hype defined: criteria

How to define these news processes? Are there common characteristics? What are the similarities in cases like O.J. Simpson, Lorena Bobbitt, Thomas/Hill (Fiske 1994) and -in the past- the case of the Central Park Jogger (Didion 1992) or the Subway Avenger (Rubin 1986)? In the Netherlands similar cases can be observed: a wave of ‘beach’ violence and crime in 1984 (‘kustgeweld’, Franke 1986), the Tamil Panic in the Press in 1985 (Van Dijk 1988), the hype about the ‘flood’ of refugees in 1994 (Vasterman 1994), the wave of white collar crime (fraud) involving banks and pension funds (ABP, Slavenburg) in the eighties (Brants en Brants 1991), or all the publicity about sexual abuse of children in the same period. (Vasterman 1988)
In 1994 the O.J. Simpson case got more coverage on American TV than ‘real’ political crises like Haiti, Cuba and Somalia, but what are the differences between these hypes and the regular coverage about war and disaster on the same front pages that run OJ stories? (For an analysis of OJ and the Internet see this link.)
Publicity waves seem to have a specific and unique quality: in one way or another the relation between reality and the coverage seems to get lost somewhere in the whole process. The explosion of publicity is the result of the dynamic interaction between media and society, instead of being the reflection of a ‘factual’ developments in society. The sudden increase in the amount of reports about a new phenomenon can be the cause as well as the result of media attention. Because of the media’s influence on the social development causes and consequences get mixed up. Is there really more violence in the schools, or have we changed our moral criteria for ‘intolerable’ behavior? Are there more cases of sexual harassment or has there been a change in our moral views? At a certain moment the coverage seems to get a life of its own, disconnected from factual developments. There are many examples of hypes based on blown up figures publicized by sources advocating for their interests.
“Think back again to the missing children stories. What started as a few highly publicized cases about abducted children blazed into national hysteria. (...) Then the Denver Post exposed the truth behind the statistics. Its series of Pulitzer prize-winning articles showed that the number of children abducted had been overestimated by tens of thousands. Almost immediately, the coverage stopped.” (Basheda 1992) Valarie Basheda researching these kinds of hypes discovered that a New York City action group started off the chain reaction. “It fed the media inflated statistics about the numbers of missing youngsters to gain publicity for their efforts.” In stead of checking the ‘facts’ and the original sources, the media concentrate on all kinds of follow-ups, including the reaction of the authorities who feel that they have to take action. But - as will describe later- in many mediahypes it is impossible to relate media attention to any ‘factual’ developments, simply because these ‘facts’ do not exist.

Regular coverage of disasters like floods or social problems like minorities can show elements of a hype. The Dutch national daily NRC Handelsblad published a commentary of the editor-in-chief about the way the media handled the statements of a conservative politician about minorities and refugees. “In this case the political media complex was changing into top gear. (....) Bolkestein was asked again and again about his views, and everything was covered in extenso until this subject became a real hype cocktail. One may ask the question whether the journalists were still able to make a difference between news and hype.” (NRC Handelsblad 25 March 1995).
The concept of the media hype is used here to describe those news waves that show their own dynamics, and developing an explosive mixture of facts, statements, and opinions, inciting excitement, outrage or sometimes even panic. This often results in a distorted coverage, over-reporting of incidents and an inflation of the newly discovered phenomenon.

Media hypes versus media events

In the scientific literature it is difficult to find a useful concept for the news craze. In Media Matters (1994) John Fiske uses the word ‘media event’. These kinds of events have their own reality and their own patterns. “The term media event is an indication that in a postmodern world we can no longer rely on a stable relationship or clear distinction between a ‘real’ event and its mediated representation. A media event, then, is not mere a representation of what happened, but it has its own reality, which gathers up into itself the reality of the event that may or may not have preceded it.” (p. 2) The media construct a ‘hyperreality’, in which a struggle is going on about the interpretation and meanings of what is going on in the world. Fiske prefers to use the term ‘discourse’: “the continuous process of making sense and of circulating it socially.” (p. 6) This is an ongoing process, in the minds of all people as well as in the media or politics. For this struggle he uses the metaphor of a river of discourses. “At times the flow is comparatively calm; at others, the undercurrents, which always disturb the depths under even the calmest surface, erupt into turbulence. Rocks and promontories can turn its currents into eddies and counter currents, can change its directions or even reverse its flow.” (p.7) According to Fiske media events are the “sites of maximum discursive visibility and maximum turbulence.” (p. 8) Media events are indicators of deep cultural crises in society: the O.J. Simpson case is about racism, Hill & Thomas and Bobbitt are about gender.
These metaphors of a river of discourses and the media events as the ‘rapids’ in that river seem adequate to describe these social processes, but they seem to lack one important element, that is specific to the publicity waves in the media. And that is the element of a general feeling of panic: crucial is the atmosphere of anxiety that triggers a hype, which in turn will intensify the panic or outrage. Another problem is that the concept ‘media event’ will cause confusion because it presupposes a clear distinction between the ‘real’ and the ‘media events’, whereas Fiske argues that this distinction is impossible in our postmodern world. Another argument against the metaphor of the river is that it does not cover the specific role of the media. How do they reinforce the rapids and the turbulence?

The concept of media hypes seems a better choice: under certain conditions the daily news can turn into very intensive publicity waves with their own dynamics. People can hyperventilate, but the media also show a sort of hyperventilation: an agitated and intensive breathing, caused by fears and anxiety, but at the same time intensifying these fears. The result can be a spiral movement, intensifying the media hype.
‘Mediahype’ not only refers to hyperventilation, it also contains the original American word, the hype, used for the blownup and mostly commercial publicity for new bestsellers or blockbusters. Hype in that sense stands for planted or organized, at least not spontaneous publicity by using press conferences, interviews or luxurious press trips.
Not only in the USA but also in the Netherlands actors, directors and authors make a tour around the country, promoting their newest production in talk shows, glossy magazines or Sunday papers.
This element of planned or planted publicity is a very crucial element in many media hypes: there are always interest groups, authorities or organizations that show an interest in directing the publicity about a specific subject. Commercial interests are involved, but also - of cause- political or idealistic motives. It is not a coincidence that a whole new profession has developed describing their goals as: ‘issues management’. (Schoonman 1991).
In this respect the term pseudo-event coined for the first time in 1961 by Daniel J. Boorstin (1962) in The Image can be very useful. During a media hype all kinds of ‘actors’ will try to direct and influence the news coverage by organizing or ‘staging’ news events. According to Daniel Boorstin these pseudo-events are never spontaneous, but always planned with only one goal, to be reported in the media. “The question: ‘Is it real’ is less important than ‘Is it newsworthy’?” Says Boorstin, 91962, p. 23): “Pseudo-events cost money to create; hence somebody has an interest in disseminating, magnifying, advertising and extolling them as events worth watching or worth believing.” (p.49)
These kinds of Media events play indeed an important role in a media hype, especially when they are controversial and are being covered widely. As they become part of the regular news coverage and daily social talk these pseudo-events are exactly as ‘real’ as the ‘spontaneous’ news events, they become part of this media reality (Fiske 1994), in which social controversies come to the (public) surface.

Criteria media hype

To make a clear distinction between regular news coverage and media hypes new criteria are needed. On the basis of researching many media hypes in different areas, it is possible to define the following criteria.
During a media hype one can discover:

1. A massive coverage on a new subject, that is, it seems new, because there was no news about it before. A taboo was broken, an new social problem discovered. A striking key event might trigger this intensive coverage.
2. That there still is a very obscure or vague definition of the new incidents and the supposed trend. The thought about what really might be going on - and especially if it might be a threat- have not yet taken a definite shape.
3. That a new label will be introduced for the new phenomenon. This label freezes the incident into a certain image, which becomes very popular in the media.
4. Elements of moral panic, outrage or fears and anxiety in the coverage and in society.
5. That most hypes develop in areas that hit a nerve with the public: invading of one’s territory, personal health, sexuality, and deviant behavior.
6. A (partly) staged and directed coverage. When the hype starts or during later stages when authorities or interest groups - having an ax to grind- try to control the development of the hype.
7. A pseudo-crisis coverage with a typical crisis-journalese: ‘the virus of violence’, ‘a crisis that is worse than is generally acknowledged’, ‘this is only the tip of the iceberg.’
8. All the attention and the publicity creates the impression that the recently disclosed ‘problem’ or social phenomenon itself is also getting bigger and bigger. This is the amplification process: the problem gets more visible as a result of the media hype.
These criteria -of course- still need to be verified by research.

After this tentative definition of this news process the question arises what kinds of theories and theoretical concepts are available to investigate the typical dynamic of a media hype. Do all these hypes show the same patterns? Are they in some way predictable?

News construction versus news selection

The majority of researches of news production and coverage concentrates on the question of selection criteria, used by journalist ‘deciding what’s news.’ The result of this ‘gatekeeper’ research (Gans 1980, or Galtung & Ruge 1965/1970) is an overview of all the relevant selection criteria: news has to be negative, unpredictable, unusual, and linked to élite people and/or élite nations. This approach is based on the presumption that journalists actually report events. But news is not out there, journalists do not report news, the produce news. They construct it, they construct facts, they construct statements and they construct a context in which these facts make sense. They reconstruct ‘a’ reality.

From this point of view the selection criteria are not as important for news production as the question: how do journalists make sense of what is going on in the world?
The Dutch researcher Jan Kleinnijenhuis (1990, p. 269, 270) writes in his study about the factors influencing the content of news that colleague researchers observing journalists at the news desk discovered that selection criteria are hardly ever mentioned, but that on the only conversation journalists do have is about the recent political situation itself. “The journalistic process starts with the creation of a versatile world view, to be used for predicting new developments. (...) To sharpen their views journalists need debates about recent political and economical developments with their colleagues more than discussing selection criteria.” News always is construction of perceived reality in which the observer tries to make sense of what happens.
The same point is made by Brosius and Eps in their article about the role of key events in the news (H.B. Brosius, P. Eps, 1995): “Traditional theories of news selection like gate-keeping cannot explain the sudden key-event driven change in the news worthiness of events, because all of the stress the stability of news selection criteria.” (p. 396)
By using the approach of news construction the researcher has a better chance to understand how the media can create new facts, news developments, or even a new reality, in which hypes occur.

Flesheating virus

With the traditional gatekeeper research it would be very difficult to understand the hype about the ‘flesheating virus’ (See The Sunday Times May 29, 1994) during the spring of 1994 in the UK and other countries. This case meets almost all the criteria formulated for a hype.
For the British tabloids the story of the killer bacteria could have been created by Steven Spielberg using headlines like: “Killer bug ate my face.” (Daily Star), en “Flesh-eating bug ate my mother in 20 minutes (Daily Mirror). In the Netherlands De Telegraaf writes about a “flesheating bacillus,” the magazine Aktueel uses: “A virus that feeds itself with humans,” and the Algemeen Dagblad: mentions a “ flesheating virus that swallows meat, fat and muscles with a speed of about 2,5 centimeters per hour.” In Holland, as well as in the UK, the ‘science fiction’ bug causes a stir, especially because the TV news shows horrible footage of the victims. One newspaper reveals that there have been already 28 victims in Holland during the past 18 months on a total of 132 infected patients. (Relevant criteria: intensive coverage, elements of fear and panic, hitting a nerve news and crisis journalese.)
An important step in the launch of this media hype was the observation of a trend, or rather, an epidemic on the basis of a few isolated cases of an infection by this specific Streptococcus A that can cause necrotising fasciitus or NF.

It is exactly in this first phase of the hype that everything depends on a specific construction of a perceived reality. The whole ‘panic’ starts with a small article in a regional newspaper, reporting that an operating room in the local hospital temporarily had been closed to clean a contamination with a dangerous bacteria. Within a few days another case of contamination is reported elsewhere in the same region and a fourth one followed after the first publication in the media.
“Official it was a cluster and the story moved off onto the national agenda.” (The Sunday Times May 29 1994). Research later proved the cluster to be a coincidence, the different cases were caused by different Streptococcus A bacteria. There had not been a ‘mysterious’ outbreak of new superbacteria as several media reported.
The labeling of the newly discovered threat is another important step in the creation of news. Of course the bacteria does not ‘eat’ people’s bodies, it produces toxins which destroy flesh, as is known since the eighteenth century. The choice of the label ‘flesheating’ (“at a rate of an inch an hour”) contributes to the development of the hype. .
During the hype new survivors and new victims were discovered almost every day. Figures went up due to repetition, baseless claims and the rediscovery of ‘old’ victims. Most of these cases were the result of the huge publicity wave, but in the media it looked like a real outbreak threatening public health. By the time the authorities declared that there was no “killer bug sweeping the country” the hype had reached a point of no return.

News themes

Before journalists can reconstruct a reality and actually ‘perceive’ new incidents they need a context to fit everything in, they need a so-called news theme. The first researcher to develop this concept was Mark Fishman in his article ‘Crime Waves as Ideology’ (1981), in which he analyzes a crime wave in New York City in 1976. For weeks the media reported a surge of violence against elderly people. According to Fishmans’ research the work of journalists is guided and structured by news themes. “A news theme is a unifying concept. It presents a specific news event, or a number of such events in some broader concept. (...) A news theme allows journalists to cast an incident as an instance of something.” (Fishman 1981, p. 102). Once a news theme has been defined journalists will go out and look for incidents that confirm the theme. Fishman (p. 106) refers to the consistency rule: “every crime incident that can be seen as an instance of that theme, will be seen and reported as such.” The rule is used to identify the news worthiness of certain crimes. Stories that ‘normally’ might not have merited attention can become part of a lead story, because they fit in the news theme. Because news judgments overlap in space and time, a news theme will spread quickly through the media. A specific incident can lead to a new theme, which will generate new reports, covering fresh incidents, more details or other angles. This process will result in the conclusion that this sort of crime is ‘real’ and probably getting worse.
Incidental and structural publicity waves

News is different every day, but it is not as fragmented and chaotic as it may seem. Looking at the news flows for a longer period one discovers the rise and fall of many news themes that structure news production. In the background these themes are related to the central social issues of a society, which are influenced by the publicity in the media. The development of an issue (and the connected news themes) might be a natural social reaction to a new development or an outside threat, it can also be created by interest groups or authorities who use the media to get attention for their cause. In this respect the news is not only a reporting of events, but also a consciousness-raising process that shows how this society defines certain situations and events as ‘problems’ or issues. This is news as a sort of therapy, that helps people deal with their self defined problems.
That is the reason to make a distinction between incidental hypes and more structural publicity waves, that can contain short term hypes. The long term publicity waves that can last for more than a decade, are the expression of this problem-defining process, in which phases of consensus follow periods of crisis and controversy.


An interesting example of a structural publicity wave is the white collar crime ‘epidemic’ that erupted in the Netherlands during the beginning of the Eighties. Fraud was seen as a very serious and urgent crime problem that would spread quickly unless the authorities would fight it. According to Brants and Brants in their study ‘The Social Construction of Fraud’ (1991) it was impossible to answer the question of the presumed increase of this kind of crime. There were no statistics on white collar crime available before the year of 1984. More important is the observation that the social definition of fraud became wider during the publicity wave, including many new ‘sorts’ of fraud.
More news about white collar crime might indicate an increase in criminal acts, but it might also be the result of a changing social climate in which the society discovers a ‘new’ problem and in which the rather ambiguous social definition of what is tolerable behavior is floating. At the roots of this change stood a group young prosecutors who intensified the fight against fraud, bringing more and more cases to trial. These cases were reported in the press and as a result the notion of an increasingly serious crime problem took hold in society. This, in turn, leads to more social concern and a political appeal for more action. New cases and more convictions will boost the publicity wave as well the growing concern in society. Brants and Brants describe this process as the amplification spiral. It makes the problem more and more visible, more and more acts are defined as criminal and as part of this problem, and at the same time there is a strong demand for action to stop this growing problem.
The media play a very important role in this amplification process: fraud becomes a news theme and from point on journalists will focus on every incident that can in some way be related to the central news theme. Brants and Brants emphasize this process of convergence: all kinds of news events, incidents and items will be lumped together under the headline of one common denominator. The result of this convergence mechanism will be the gradual extension of the meaning of the word fraud “to cover forms of behavior hitherto unrecognized as crime, especially in the white collar crime and corporate field.” (320) In the eyes of the public it seems that this sort of crime is suddenly exploding in society. By the end of the Eighties a very broad spectrum of different ‘criminal’ acts is labeled as ‘fraud’. At a certain point this widening process will slow down because of the increasing ambiguity as to what should be defined as ‘fraud.’ During the following social controversy many actors will try to propagate their (self serving) definition of what is criminal and what not. This might result into a new phase of consensus.

Sexual abuse of children

Another example of a structural publicity wave is the development of the issue of sexual abuse of children, in which several short term hypes have occurred, like the ritual abuse panic and the daycare center cases in the US as well as in Holland (Oude Pekela, the Bolderkar in Rotterdam). Incest as an issue moved to the media agenda at the beginning of the Eighties. The feminist movement first concentrated on issues like wife battering and rape in the Seventies, inevitably leading to the (re-) discovery of incest, or rather as it was labeled: the sexual abuse of children. The feminist response to the sexual revolution of the Sixties led to in the creation of a lot of new, pejorative, concepts like sexual violence, sexual harassment, date rape and sexual abuse of sexual child molestation. In sharp contrast to the word ‘incest’, these words are very clear on the nature of what is happening between adults and children.

In 1982 the Vereniging tegen Seksuele Kindermishandeling (Organization against sexual abuse of children) was founded in the Netherlands and from that point on the media showed an endless flow of articles, reports, books, films and talkshows on he subject of child abuse. A taboo had been broken and a lot of victims decided to come out into the open with their sad stories. All this publicity resulted in new accusations and more and more trials against the perpetrators. And of course, all these cases triggered new publicity on the child abuse issue, creating the impression in the media that here was an ‘outbreak of a incest epidemic’, as some newspapers called it. This amplification spiral shows the same characteristics as the spiral in the Fraud wave: the mechanism of convergence results in a broadening of the concept: more and more actions will be defined as sexual violence. The widening of the concept is also responsible for the ever-increasing figures, leading to newspaper reports with headlines that more than half of all women has been a victim of sexual violence.
In the case of the Fraud publicity wave the amplification led to a growing ambiguity and the same process can be observed in the case of the sexual abuse wave. Several controversial cases trigger an intensive debate about how to define sexual abuse, about the methods for discovering abuse (with the so-called ‘anatomical dolls’), and the reliability of the testimonies made by traumatized victims. The sexual abuse publicity wave becomes the arena of a struggle between several competing definitions and views on the issue.

Anatomy of the media hype

The convergence process, described by Brants and Brants, can be seen as the result of Fishmans’ consistency rule: a growing number of incidents will be reported in the news under the same headline of the ‘new’ social problem. As a result of all this attention the problem seems to grow and to get worse, whereas only the definitions and the perception have changed. Other researchers like Cohen (1971) and Franke (1986) have developed comparable concepts.
In the summer of 1984, Holland seems to be under the spell of a new kind of violence, the so-called ‘beach violence’. Although police figures show that there had not been more fights between young tourists than in any of the previous years, a whole new phenomenon is created after only one incident; a fight with a fatal casualty. At first this fight is being reported as an isolated incident, but soon newspapers start writing about series of fights occurring in the tourist center at the beach. The daily Algemeen Dagblad quotes a police officer saying that with this casualty “rock bottom has been reached in a long series of violent bar fights.” This concept of a dramatic climax in a long process of violence soon becomes popular in the Dutch media. Within a week, after two new fights have been reported in other tourist places, the threatening ‘wave of beach violence’ makes national headlines. A report by the (only) national TV newsprogram NOS-Journaal validates this new kind of violence. After all this media attention it is no surprise that in a lot of places in Holland new fights and other violent incidents were reported as ‘beach violence.’ Researcher Herman Franke uses the concept of the sensitization process, (developed by Stanley Cohen, and comparable to Fishmans’ news themes), during which journalists develop an intensified sensitivity for “items of a similar nature, which otherwise might have been ignored.” (Franke 1986). Defining isolated events as a new social problem led, according to Franke, “to a geographical expansion and to broadening of the definition.” In other words, the hype leads to a “widening of the net” (Cohen).

Fiction becomes reality because everybody is prepared to believe the reality of the new phenomenon and is also prepared to act as if it were real. Politicians, looking for positive media coverage, visit the ‘battlefield’, where local authorities seize he opportunity to claim more money and more police. This will intensify media coverage of this new kind of violence. All this creates a new dynamic that cannot be stopped anymore. Even efforts to de-escalate will be reported under the headlines of ‘beach violence’ (“Egmont aan Zee recovers after violent outbursts”). According to Herman Franke the media turned a fictitious problem into a “real moral panic.” Journalists were not lying, they also really believed in the reality of the new kind of violence. Without checking they many times reproduced ‘facts’ reported by colleagues, adding with their own story to the hype. This is a very common pattern during media hypes: journalists have a tendency to ‘borrow’ ideas from other media. “It gives the story proven market value, and the story is safe because its news worthiness, if not its accuracy, has been validated by another major newspaper.” (Basheda 1992). This leads to a kind of ‘pack journalism’, with journalists running after the same stories for fear of missing important news. To understand hypes, it is not only important to look at the interaction between media and society, but also at mechanism within the journalistic profession.

Different phases in the development of a hype

With the theoretical framework, developed in this article, we can try to distinguish different phases in the development of a (incidental) hype. At first sight most hypes seem to be quite chaotic and unpredictable, but comparing a large number of hypes shows several repeating patterns. The same factors and mechanism seem to cause the same sort of multiplier effect during most media hypes.

Most media hypes show these four phases:

the identification phase, in which the new phenomenon is discovered and defined.
the widening phase, during which more and more incidents will be reported under the same new headline.
the reaction phase, where reactions lead to an escalation or de-escalation of the publicity.
the extinguishing or renewal phase, possibly resulting into the development of a structural publicity wave.
1] the identification phase

In the first stadium there are only a few isolated (and minor) reports in newspapers about events that at first sight do not seem to have much in common. The next step in the process is the discovery, or rather, the creation of a catchy news theme that enables people to see a connection between the first isolated cases. When the theme is attractive enough the other media will be prepared to follow-up on the first publications. Journalists are inclined to follow other media and will try to develop new angles or sources on this new subject. Consequently they will look for new events that in some way or another can confirm the central news theme. This is the consistency rule (Fishman): other isolated incidents can be placed in a new meaningful context. The result will be a self fulfilling prophecy: because the media pay so much attention to the recently discovered problem, the ‘reality’ of the news theme can be proved.
For the creation of a hype the first labeling is extremely important: what concepts are used to define the new problem? In what way do they refer to a moral panic? Who is responsible for this label and what kind of social or political interests are involved? The first word (and the first definition of the situation) has a good chance to survive for a long time, even if there are contradictory facts turning up. Apart from interest groups and authorities the journalists play a very important role in this first defining process. After all, they are professionally inclined to keep looking for new trends and developments. A few incidents or observations will do to launch a new social trend, or a threatening social problem.
The American journalist Paul Weaver (1994) writes about a routine “crisis and emergency response”, used not only by journalists, but also by officials to “enact, select, and narrate events in the image of the genre’s overarching drama of urgent public danger.” (2) When a real crisis is at hand and officials are taking steps to cope with it, this approach is appropriate, but -according to Weaver- when officials and journalists transform even quite ordinary events into crises because the news genre insists that crisis and emergency responses are taking place every day, these stories “become fabrications.”(2)
Another important aspect is the symbolic value of the new phenomenon: an event must be observed as a metaphor for broader social developments or problems. O.J. was about race (Fiske), Bobbitt about gender (rape).

2] The second phase: the widening of the hype.

During this second phase the hype accelerates: more and more related incidents will be reported, while more and more media will join in. The result of the consistency rule is a process of convergence. More events will be reported under the banner of the new concept, which in turn becomes wider and wider. In the end the discovered problems like fraud or ‘beach violence’ will get bigger and bigger.
The new definition of the problem guides the perception and the journalistic research strategies: reporters get the assignment to cover this problem (at a local level f.i.) and they will look for new angles, sources or consequences of the new development. This leads to new ramifications of the original problem.
Once national newspapers or TV stations get involved, the issue becomes ‘official’ and everybody gets carried away.
A decisive factor at this point it is the ‘supply’ of new incidents that are related to the central issue. All kinds of organizations, interest groups and officials will step in and try to play a role in the news. These sources make a sort of ‘preselection’ of news, anticipating what the media prefer but at the same time with an eye on their own interests. The increase of the problem can be ‘real’, but in many cases only the number of reports by sources goes up, while the media are completely dependent on them for this kind (official) of information. Although several researchers describe this hype pattern, a new concept there has not yet been defined (Fishman 1981, Franke 1986). This could be labeled as the ‘we-too’- effect.
Typical for a full blown hype is the almost complete neglect of contradictory facts or dissident views in the media. This is the result of a very strong mechanism of selective perception, not only by journalists, but also on the part of the sources and the public. One definition only seems acceptable, people or sources with other ideas will not get access to the media to propagate their ideas, they are ignored.

3] The reaction phase: escalation or de-escalation?

The reaction of authorities, officials and interest groups are of overriding importance in this next phase. They can use their news making power to channel the coverage into a specific direction. Sometimes they have the power to de-escalate the hype by releasing new information or figures on the situation. Or to increase the hype by pointing at comparable problems, to plead for stronger actions, or to ask for more subsidies from the government.
All these responses are by definition news for the media; maybe a new policy is introduced to cope with the problem, maybe the opposition parties or interest groups disagree so a new round of publicity is inevitable. This follow-up publicity of reactions after reactions has a ‘hype-reinforcing’ effect. When the government gives an official response than this new problem must be ‘real’. Fishman (1981, p. 108) uses the concepts ‘veto power’ and ‘enabling power’, the political power to intensify or slow down publicity waves, whatever is suitable for their political strategies.
This phase show a remarkable shift in the attention of the media: the number of articles and reports on the original event will go down, while the number of reports on the reactions will go up. The media will concentrate on all the political responses, debates, press conferences, meetings, demonstrations that are in some way related to the hype.
This could be labeled as the ‘meta-phrase’ effect, which results in new reports everyday with news angles, new sources or new ramifications. The original (key) event gets mythical proportions, because all kinds of details and backgrounds will slowly disappear from the reports. There is no doubt about the original definition of what happened, so there is no incentive for journalists to go back and to investigate the first event that triggered the hype. In the few cases where journalists at an early stage reconsidered the case the hype was killed almost immediately.

4] The extinguishing or renewal phase

The question remains why some hypes burn down very quickly, while others keep renewing themselves, gaining new momentum again and again, transforming into more structural publicity waves. Some issues will stay on the news agendas for more than a decade, like sexual abuse.
A hype needs a supply of new incidents to confirm the trend, but will they keep coming? Apart from what happens ‘out there’ this depends strongly on the policy of organizations and officials.
In other cases the media discover new facts about the problem, simply by following journalistic routines: the search for new angles en other sources will sometimes lead to new perspectives and other conclusions about the alleged threat.
In some cases the hype extinguishes because after a while a saturation point is reached and in the eyes of the journalists the subject becomes worn out due to overexposure. At that point new hypes may get launched.
The development of a more structural publicity wave is the result of a process in which the society slowly gains consciousness of a new problem and during which short term hypes after key events play an important role. For many years this issue will be at the front pages, triggering off new ‘discoveries’. The very first exposures of sexual child abuse at the beginning of he Eighties and the introduction of a completely new discourse caused a long term publicity wave on sexual violence. And even after sixteen years new hypes in this area are possible.

Back to reality?

Looking at mediahype from the angle of the relation between reality and hype one might distinguish four different kinds of mediahypes:

1] The political mediahype.

In some cases it is perfectly clear that there is a gap between the hype and the facts, for instance in the case of hype about escapes from Dutch prisons in 1993. (Pien Houthoff 1993) In fact, the number of escapes was decreasing before and during the mediahype. In these cases there is no ambiguity about the definition of the incident, but there are always interest groups, trying to get a political issue in the media.

2] The moral mediahype:

another kind of mediahypes can occur around one single, remarkable incident. Disgust or outrage prevent thorough investigations and as a result facts and fictions get mixed up. Instead of going back to the original event, journalists tend to concentrate on the search for new angles and other sources.

3] The medical mediahype.

A specific sort of mediahype sometimes develop in the area of health risks: the massive publicity during such a mediahype leads to a strong overestimation of the health risks for the public. Thoughtful scientific conclusions are reduced in the media to simple black and white answers and strong warnings for the public. Stricter levels and intensified checks by authorities will create new incidents, fueling the hype again.

4] The social mediahype.

In these cases it is impossible to reconstruct the facts, because the media have changed society and the perception and definition of the problem. During these mediahypes the problem seems to grow in scope and intensity. For the media and the public this is the new ‘media transmitted’ reality.

More questions

In this article an effort was made to construct a theoretical framework for the analysis of incidental media hypes and structural publicity waves. Many observations and statements still have the character of hypotheses, that have to be tested by further research. The following questions might be important for future research.
Are media hypes pathological or do they belong to the essence of news construction? Are they rule or ‘deviant’ exceptions? Isn’t the creation of new hypes inevitable for a profession whose main social task is to discover new problems, threats or wrongdoing and to warn the public and the authorities?

Are there more media hypes than in the past? Is there a link to sensationalism, the struggle for ratings, and advertising money? After all, hypes do sell! Or is this question a typical ‘hype pitfall”? Do we see more hypes because now we recognize them easier?

What are the positive or negative effects of media hypes? Hypes are capable of focusing social attention to problems and victims, ignored before, but on the other hand it is very obvious in some cases that the hype turns out to be a hoax. Hypes can put new issues on the news agenda, but no without a strong influence on the media coverage by officials and interest groups.
Future research into the mechanisms controlling media hypes would be very important for all those journalists who want to keep their heads cool, even when the whole society is caught up into one big moral panic.


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