Sport News in the Local Media – Green Bay Packers’ Return to Glory

Introduction

The academic field of media communication inquires into diverse phenomena about information delivery and cultural production made through media such as newspapers, television, films, the Internet, etc. According to James Carey (1992), there are two views of communication in the history of American thought: a transmission view of communication and a ritual, or cultural, view of communication. A transmission view sees communication as a process by which information is delivered and distributed over distances. On the other hand, a ritual view of communication understands it as a symbolic representation whereby cultural beliefs and social reality are presented in order to draw people together in commonality. Until recently, communication research has been dominated by the transmission view of communication, which is characterized by so-called “effects research.” Carey, however, argues that without a consideration of the cultural aspects, the whole picture of communication phenomena cannot be properly understood.

Following Carey’s dictum, I will in this paper examine the practice of local television news media from the ritual view of communication. I will, especially, examine the relationship between community boosterism in sports news and the social–economic context in which such a practice is located. For this purpose, semiotic analysis will be applied to the WISC News 3 at Ten (hereafter, News 3) broadcasts in Wisconsin’s greater Madison area during the period from 23 January 1997 to 23 February 1997, in which the Green Bay Packers winning of the Super Bowl was the most newsworthy story.

According to the ritual view, television’s major role is to share consensus narratives. By this, local television news presents widely accessible cultural symbols and shared stories within a community, thus helping audiences develop a sense of local identity. According to George Sage (1990), not only is sport an important cultural arena through which people learn appropriate sociocultural attitudes and values, but it is also a context within which a community’s collective interests are cultivated and maintained. As such, by examining local sports news programs, I hope that our insight into the relationship between the local media and local sports teams will be enhanced, and that our understanding of the ritual view of communication may be deepened.

This paper is composed in the following order: Introduction; The Nexus of Community and Communication; Local News Media, Green Bay Packers and the Growth Machine; Boosterism Presented in the Local News Show: The Green Bay Packers and the Super Bowl; and finally, Conclusion and Discussion. In the following section, I shall examine how the notion of community has been studied in social science, and its relationship with communication (technology).

The Nexus of Community and Communication

A decline of community has occupied the central position in American social science since the late nineteenth century. Scholars, including Edward A. Ross and Louis Wirth, viewed that urbanization was destroying the traditional way of life or community. In particular, German theorist Ferdinand Tonnies’s book, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887), inspired social science students to take up a linear model of social change. According to his ideas, gemeinschaft (community)—characterized by its harmonic social relations based on consensus—was being replaced by gesellschaft (society), which was characterized by independent and self-interested social relations. Since the publication of the book, this linear model has become central in the research of social change and urbanization (Friedland & McLeod, 1998).

In the meantime, a group of scholars, including Charles Horton Cooley, John Dewey, and Robert Park, argued that community survived the urbanization. In particular, they noted that face-to-face communities such as families and neighborhood groups formed the base for creating social unity. Seeking to extend these basic groups outward, Cooley looked to communication technologies such as the telegraph, wire services, the telephone and the penny press; these were rapidly being used around the turn of the twentieth century. Cooley noted that with “the recent marvelous improvement of communicative machinery,” people could extend social unity, overcome the fragmented civil society and build a more democratic society (quoted in Simonson, 1996, p. 330).

As a philosopher, Dewey supported Cooley’s idea by exploring the nexus of the concepts communication and community:

There is more than a verbal tie among the words “common,” “community” and “communication.” Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common.… Consensus demands communication. (quoted in Carey, 1992, p. 22)

In brief, as terminological cousins, communication is understood as a tool for community integration.

Through his sociological study of newspapers, Park empirically examined the newspaper’s role in community integration. First, he saw the function of news as a mediator of public opinion, or as “some sort of consensus.” According to Park (1940/1967):

The first typical reaction of an individual to the news is likely to be a desire to repeat it to someone. This makes conversation, arouses further comment, and perhaps starts a discussion.… The clash of opinions and sentiments which discussion invariably evokes usually terminates in some sort of consensus or collective opinion—what we call public opinion.… (p. 42)

Secondly, Park argues that out of their struggle for existence, newspaper publishers made great efforts to integrate immigrants into American newspaper readership during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and this eventually built American community.

Contemporary sociologist Thomas Bender revisits the notion of community and criticizes the problems inherent in the linear model of urban theory. According to him, community is not simply a bygone phenomenon that has been replaced by urbanization, but is a “fundamental and enduring form of social interaction” (Bender, 1978, p. 43). He adds that it is “best defined as a network of social relations marked by mutuality and emotional bonds” (ibid., p. 7). This definition of community is echoed in Benedict Anderson’s notion of “imagined community.” According to Anderson, a nation can be understood as an imagined community “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson, 1994, p. 6). In other words, a sense of community is constructed through daily rituals of media consumption by which the reader/audience imagines the media’s co-readers/co-audiences to be a part of the same commonality, even though they will never know most of these other members.

Based on this understanding, in the following section, I will contextualize the current practice of community spirit boosterism in the local media.

Local News Media, Green Bay Packers and the Growth Machine

For the past several decades, local news media institutions have concerned themselves with suburbanization, and the weakening of citizens’ attachment to the city—phenomena that could possibly lead to a loss of readership and audiences (Kaniss, 1991; Friedland and McLeod, 1998). In order to overcome this, local media have made efforts to promote civic pride and local identity among citizens. In alliance with other community groups, local media campaign for increased membership in literary circles, sports clubs and Lions Clubs, and for greater voter turnout during elections, which are considered indices of the abundance of social capital in a locality. In order to create symbolic capitals in the community, the local media often sponsor the construction of major public works. In a sense, local media is part of what Harvey Molotch calls the “growth machine,” which refers to the “apparatus of interlocking progrowth associations and governmental units” (Logan and Molotch 1987, p. 32). The foremost aim of the growth machine is to facilitate a value-free development of the community so that there are more jobs for citizens, improved urban services, etc. Since their major financial sources are in the local arena, the aggregate growth of a community directly affects the existence of the local media, and the media’s acquisition of greater readership and sale of more advertisements.

In news production, “news values” operate as culturally specific narrative codes. According to Bird and Dardenne (1988):

The journalist-storyteller is indeed using culturally embedded story values, taking them from the culture and re-presenting them to the culture, and is thus akin to the folk storyteller who operates in a ‘communal matrix’ vis-à-vis the audience. (p. 80)

In a sense, there is a triangular relationship among newsmaker, news text and audience built around the concept of news values. By understanding what kinds of news make sense and sell, local news media produce news text that has “news value” for their target audiences. This notion of “news values” often works as a justification for market-driven journalism. Philadelphia-based broadcaster Jim Gardner’s following remarks have implications in this regard:

…There are stories we do because we think people should know about them. But there are stories we do because people are interested in them. [Those kinds of stories are] not going to change the world, but it is gripping and it does bring people to TV and yes, raises our ratings.… (quoted in Kaniss, 1991, p. 109; phrase in brackets in original)

Against this background, the local news media tend to provide any news that makes their audiences feel proud of. For example, when Elizabeth Dole, president of the American Red Cross, visited Madison, Wisconsin, on 28 January 1997 to make a speech to local leaders and volunteers of the organization, the only sound bite of her address that was reported on News 3 was: “… Madison leads the United States to a better society …” In addition, news stories about Madison topping the polls as one of the most livable cities in America, or about Madison citizens or Wisconsinites being the most reliable and helpful people in America according to a recent poll, or about Wisconsin businesses ranking high on a list of most admired companies in the country in Fortune magazine make important news items. These kinds of news further function as an advertisement for Wisconsin being a good business site.

Like the local media, local sports teams are important institutions in the growth machine, as they assume roles that present a favorable image to outsiders. According to Logan and Molotch (ibid.): “Professional sports teams are a clear asset to localities for the strong image they present and tourist traffic they attract” (p. 79). The Green Bay Packers are not only a very important cultural and social element in Wisconsin, but are also a source of pride for the people of Wisconsin. As the only publicly-owned professional sports team in America, it gives most Wisconsinites, especially Green Bay citizens, symbolic ownership of the team. In fact, the team does not have one owner, but 111,613 stockholders. None of the latter are allowed to own more than 200,000 shares, so as to preserve the spirit of public ownership of the team. It is often said that any person who roots for the Packers is an owner of the team. As such, the Wisconsin fans’ allegiance to the team is so strong that since 1960, season tickets for the Packers’ home games have been sold out for every game; and the estimated waiting time for season tickets is more than 30 years (“Most unique”).

By enhancing Green Bay’s visibility as a big league city, the Packers are expected to attract those who make decisions to invest in Wisconsin. “Every country is tuned in. And a great way to sell Wisconsin and put our best foot forward, there’s no question about the fans here, are behind the Green Bay Packers. They truly are America’s team” (News 3. 26 January 1997). Wisconsin’s Governor Tommy Thompson said this in an interview after the Super Bowl game on 26 January 26 1997, revealing the tight relationship among the local media, local government, Green Bay Packers, local businesses, and local identity.

Boosterism Presented in the Local News Show: The Green Bay Packers and the Super Bowl

The News 3 is roughly composed in this order: general news (mainly on Wisconsin), commercials, a national and international news wrap, commercials, weather forecast, commercials, science and technology segment, commercials, sports news, commercials, and finally, a section called “Happy Talk” that has the news anchors delivering a light and soft news story with closing remarks. During the period of this research (from 23 January 1997 to 23 February 1997), the biggest news item was the Super Bowl game in which the Green Bay Packers won the championship over the New England Patriots. Therefore, the Super Bowl and the Green Bay Packers have provided many signs in news texts, in which audiences were invited to associate signifiers (for example, news items related to the Green Bay Packers winning the Super Bowl) with signifieds (for example, mental processes such as “feeling proud of belonging to Wisconsin communities”).

News 3 on 23 January, three days before the Super Bowl game, shows the way in which “news values” dictate the programing of the local news show. The first story was about Packers player Reggie White’s promotion of his religious beliefs in relation to the then-national debate on prayers at school. The second story was about Packers fans’ fascination with Packers merchandise. The fifth was a story about White’s intention to move to Kenosha, Wisconsin, from his hometown in Tennessee. The sixth story was about the atmosphere in downtown Green Bay days before the Super Bowl. What was noticeable in the weather section on that night’s News 3 was that the weatherman reported on the weather in New Orleans, the site of the Super Bowl game. Not surprisingly, the first story in the sports section was on the Super Bowl. After News 3 ended at 10:35 PM, a special program entitled “Return to Glory, Live-broadcast from New Orleans” was aired as an extension to News 3. “Return to Glory” was filled with scenes from Packers game and interviews with Packers players, an introduction to the restaurants in New Orleans, and interviews with Packers fans already in downtown New Orleans. The night before the Super Bowl game on 25 January, the news anchors even gave a tip on how to order pizzas on the day of the game.

During the period of this research, many news items were related to the Packers. A story was delivered about the frequency of household water usage during Packers games and the rise in usage during half-time; even the local politics news was related to the Packers. On 26 January, on News 3 at Six—another evening news show on the same channel—anchor Susan Simon interviewed John Matthews, the chief of staff of Wisconsin’s Governor Thompson. Simon asked several questions on socio-economic issues in the state of Wisconsin, and her last question was on whether the governor would invite Packers players to the State of the State address:

Susan Simon: A little bit about fun note. I know after the Rose Bowl, the Governor invited a lot of football Badgers to attend the State of the State Address. What are the odds we might see some other Green Bay Packers Wednesday night?

John Matthews: Well, some people think that the Governor’s going to New Orleans to watch the game, but actually he’s going to New Orleans to see if we can invite them to State of the State Wednesday. Several were invited but I’m not sure who or anybody will show up.…

On that night, after the Packers won the Super Bowl championship, News 3 at Ten itself was transformed into a one-hour special program for the Packers with the title, “Return to Glory.” The first announcement of the program was: “Mike Holmgren, Green Bay Packers, and entire state of Wisconsin are Super Bowl champions.” The show was largely filled with interviews with the players and with fans on the street. The common remark made by interviewees was: “After 29 years, we did it.” During this one-hour news show, the only news items that were not related to the Super Bowl were the game reports of the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team and the Milwaukee Bucks.

During the period of the Super Bowl fever, the most popular phrases uttered by news anchors during the show were “Triumph return home” and “Return to glory.” The Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl championship not only meant glory for the players and coaches, but also glory and pride for the whole state of Wisconsin. For the people of Wisconsin, the Super Bowl game was viewed not as a match between individual teams but as Wisconsin versus the Other. In this atmosphere, stories which were not really “news” but could have been categorized as “gossip” on the Green Bay Packers were frequently reported. On 27 January, News 3 showed a video clip of a Disneyland television commercial that featured Packers player Desmond Howard, who was awarded the MVP award at the Super Bowl game. On 28 January, News 3 introduced a video clip of Late Show with David Letterman, in which Howard was a guest.

On 1 February, the Green Bay Packers and the Super Bowl still had news value on News 3. The first story of the night was about the Super Bowl ticket fraud; the second was a report on Shopko Stores in Green Bay, where an autograph-signing session by the Packers players was held; the third was a mystery debate on a newspaper photograph of Green Bay fans gathered together to celebrate the Super Bowl victory, and in which a Vince Lombardi look-alike was present. Stories related to the Packers continued into the sports section at night. Anchorman Martin Kilcoyne opened the sports section by saying, “Starving for just a morsel of Packer info?” This was followed by a replay of an interview with Packers player Brett Favre on The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder the previous night. On 2 February, Groundhog Day, right before the closing remark of the show, News 3 showed a groundhog in Pennsylvania. Then, a rodent was shown in New Orleans; this was not a groundhog, but a nutria. The anchorman said, “We gotta have something from New Orleans (smiling).” The anchorwoman added, “We just can’t break away from the whole New Orleans thing.” In a similar vein, on 11 February, Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday Party in New Orleans was reported on News 3.

The next four stories were other examples that the Super Bowl continued to have news value in the local news in Wisconsin. On 3 February, tips to overcome “football blues” were included on News 3:

Anchor Beth Zurbuchen: The Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl win may be just what the doctor ordered to treat your winter blues. A La Crosse psychologist says when fans focused so closely on the Packers’ road to Super Bowl, many of us probably didn’t dwell on the cold icy winter. But if you are starting to settle into a funk, some words of advice from UW depression treatment program, “Keep the Celebration Going.”

Psychologist Gregory Kolden: … The way you deal with this kind of loss in general is find something to replace it.… So, find new way to celebrate, keep the celebration going …

Anchor John Karcher: Uh oh, there you go. Therapist say.

Kolden: Packers’ win in Super Bowl was a very powerful medicine for winter because it unites people and community.

As noted, the concern for community integration ranks high in the local media’s list of agendas. The following are news stories on how Packers’ merchandise was selling. The anchors even give price information for them. The first news story on News 3, 7 February, is as follows:

Anchor Cindy Krause: The Green and Gold is a gold mine for retailers. Stores have added up the numbers and last month was a better than usual month for business.…

Kohl’s manager, Susan Kleinfelt: It’s just been a phenomenal craze for us. Packers winning a Super Bowl has been four times greater than when the Badgers went to the Rose Bowl.…

Reporter Nancy Johnson: You can really pretend you’re Brett Favre with one of these.… This is an official game ball from Super Bowl and it’s selling for $99.99. Many Wisconsin retailers say January Super Bowl sales were excellent. Wisconsin-based Kohl’s says sales were up nearly 30 percent in January. Shopko saw fourteen and a half percent increase in sales last month, of which three percent is being attributed to Packer apparel sales.

Krause: Kohl’s put Packer items on sale for the first time today. The merchandise sold so well for the past month. They didn’t need to mark anything down.

Anchor John Karcher: And if you’re still suffering from Packer fever, there is new way to express yourself. See Reggie’s new movie.… Fans say the movie highlights Reggie’s face and it’s great. It’ll be in Madison next week.

A similar story was reported on 19 February:

Anchor John Karcher: Wisconsin just can’t let go of love affair with Super Bowl XXXI. A video tape chronicling the Packers’ Super Bowl season is now on sale. “The Return to Glory” video, which has all the highlights both on and off the field proves Packer fever never died.

Video store owner Bill Talley: It hasn’t died. We do fully expect to watch it fly out. It has been flying out. We started out yesterday with 1,800 copies. We sold 80 percent of them overnight.

Karcher: Geez. The video was also unveiled at a special showing at a local sports bar in Madison tonight. I guess it would cost about 25 bucks.

On 21 February, almost one month after the Super Bowl game, Packers-related news remained a good news item for News 3:

Anchor John Karcher: Well, if you didn’t get a chance to buy a hunk of Lambeau history, you’ve got a second chance.

Anchor Beth Zurbechen: This batch of 50,000 boxes are (sic) chunks of replacement turf from NFC championship game. The boxes go on sale tomorrow morning at eight. Each box is 10 bucks with a maximum limit of 25 boxes per person. The sale ends tomorrow about five. So, this will be your final chance to own a part of Lambeau Field.

This kind of celebratory tone continued to be a theme in the local media. It seems that the local media, as a local growth machine, was hoping that local pride would boost local businesses. From the examples given above, we can see that the local media’s interests are closely tied to civic pride in Wisconsin, the Packers organization, retailers, and the growth of the localities.

Conclusion and Discussion

In this paper, we have examined the relationship between concepts communication and community, and the practice of community boosterism by the local media through an analysis of WISC News 3 at Ten’s reports of the Green Bay Packers winning of the Super Bowl. While some might criticize the boosterism employed by the local media as uncritical paternalism that serves elite interests as one means of raising ratings for the program, we have learnt that media organizations play a role in fostering a common bond among citizens within their communities.

In general, news is regarded as a “hard” genre of television, with its self-proclaimed objectivity and factuality making it different from “soft” genres such as sitcoms, soap operas, and talk shows. In this paper, however, we have learnt that news is actually an “account” of an event based on “news values” rather than an “event” or “fact” in itself (Hartley, 1982). As the ritual view of communication enlightens us, news is a ritual that offers cultural reassurances of common beliefs. In this process, local news media tend to give precedence to consensus over balance, impartiality and objectivity—the four principles of journalism.

Endnotes

1. By this, Park called American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst the great Americanizer. In a similar vein, William Grosvenor Bleyer, the founding father of American journalism education, put forth that building solidarity among various elements of society was a policy of American newspapers (Friedland and McLeod, 1998).

2. Sport is important for the media. A third of the whole all newspaper readers are reported ly to buy the newspapers to read the sports section (Sage, 1990). Television’s unique ability to transmit live sports events is one of the major factors in for the expansion of satellite and cable television services. As such, local sports teams are all the more important for the local media.

3. Head coach of the Packers.

4. Emphases in quotations of the from reporters and interviewees in this paper are mine.

5. Vince Lombardi is the legendary figure who coached the Packers from 1959 to 1967. In his career as head coach in Green Bay, Lombardi led the Packers to five NFL Championships and victories in the first two Super Bowls. The Super Bowl trophy is named after him.

6. “The Green and Gold” are the colors of the Packers uniform and refers to the Packers.

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