Quick memoirish thoughts on Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding theory and Ferguson, Mo.

Here’s something I wrote earlier this week for a broader project that I’m dropping for the time being. I do believe this little excerpt will make it into a broader essay, but for now I’ll post it here:

I had watched for more than a week the frenzy of news reports flashing across the TV, across newspapers’ front pages. Each dispatch brought with it simultaneous heat and distance. The former was obvious: Something heavy was going down in Ferguson. The latter, however, reminded me how messy the truth can become when forced through the journalistic process — how a story can morph semiotically through what Stuart Hall termed “encoding and decoding.”

Suddenly I was back again in JOUR 101, the very first class I attended at Ohio University in 2006. I was sitting toward the back, as was my tendency back then, in a massive classroom in Morton Hall. Bill Reader was the professor, and he sort of egged on the students and got them riled up a) with a passion for visceral community reporting and b) nearly constant tongue-in-cheek references to how boring some of this journalism theory shit could be. I didn’t see it that way (re: b). In fact, after finishing the assigned reading on Stuart Hall’s theories, I actually went up to Bill Reader and told him how I thought it was some pretty interesting stuff. Deadpan, he responded: “You’re lying.” And then he kind of went off to other freshman students who were similarly crowding around him, all vying for a dose of attention and attempting to cross off meaningless pre-college checklist items, like “Do make time to introduce yourself to your professors!”

I was disheartened in a very small way, but I also realized two things: What people think of how I interact with the world means nothing to me, and this encoding/decoding theory actually was important. I would go on in the ensuing years to find plenty of holes in life where Hall’s theory could be inserted.

Here’s the gist, distilled through journalism: An event unfolds, and a reporter takes down information (visual stuff, interviews, research, etc.). In assembling a piece of journalism, that writer (and editor and photographer and graphic designer, etc.) encode the news with their own realities. The reader then decodes the news in his or her own way.

You could think of that pattern in terms of interpersonal communications, as well, of course.

And so but what I was realizing as the Ferguson story unfolded was how all of these intersecting elements (race, law enforcement, geography, personal histories, business, politics, etc.) were forcing a dramatic encoding narrative on the back-end of this incredible surge of journalism coming out of Missouri.

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