This past Spring 2019 Dr. Daniel Hallin was promoted to Distinguished Professor for his extensive contributions to his fields and years of service here at UC San Diego. We sat down with Dr. Hallin for a brief interview about his life’s work and some reflections on the current state of news media. This interview can be viewed on our departmental Youtube channel and is transcribed below. Congratulations on this momentous achievement, Dr. Hallin!
On the beginnings of his academic career:
I was a graduate student in political science. I was studying the media at a time when no one in political science studied the media. That was really rare to do that. That meant that my work really didn’t fit in very well anywhere and I think I was really lucky to land this job here at UCSD which at the time was a joint appointment with Political Science and Communication. It enabled me to then shift into a new field for me which was Communication.
Rather than just doing work that was very competent but kind of like what everyone else does I was having to figure out new questions to ask and new approaches to ask them. That came from crossing those disciplinary boundaries, I think. I studied public opinion, basically, because I was interested in political consciousness, that is, how do people form their views about politics. The only people who I could really find who studied that were the public opinion people. But I wasn’t entirely happy with the way that was done and so that’s partly why I gravitated to something different which was studying media. Along the way I made a lot of big changes in the approach and the kinds of questions I asked and so on.
A lot of those were driven by collaborations with people; a lot of my work is is collaborative. I work with other scholars and that’s hard in a lot of ways but it pushes me forward into new areas. One of the most important things there was when I started to work with Paolo Mancini who was an Italian scholar. He had come to UCSD and he was going to write a book about TV news in the US because Italy, at that point, had recently introduced commercial television. It wasn’t yet allowed to broadcast news but it was about to start broadcasting news and Mancini thought, “oh this is really going to change Italian politics” and he wanted to see what it was like in a country with commercial TV news. So we got the idea of writing an article together looking at US and Italian TV news. Studying another country a new thing for me and it pushed in the direction of doing comparative research.
On his recent research:
My most recent book is about health news and about the mediatization of medicine and that I did with a colleague who’s a medical anthropologist. One of the things that was really interesting for me about that was that, in Communication we have this theory of mediatization which is a theory about the way in which media has become more and central to all of social life. Then there’s an argument in that perspective that more and more other areas of society become influenced by the media, by their interactions with the media, by the logic of media. It seems that probably applies to health too, but then the interesting thing when I started reading literature in Medical Sociology and Anthropology is that they have kind of a parallel argument there about medicalization or biomedicalization which is a very similar argument that says more and more aspects of social life are influenced by biomedicine. So, when kids don’t learn in school we think that it’s a medical problem and we need to treat it as medical problem and lots of other aspects of life are like that too. Our eating, our leisure time is biomedicalized. So, then we were thinking, yeah that’s interesting but on the surface of it these two theories are contradictory, right? One of them says that media is colonizing everything else and one of them says that biomedicine is. So, what happens when the two of them come together. It was really interesting thinking that through. It required, I think, proposing different ways of thinking about mediatization and I think also different ways of thinking about the Sociology and Anthropology of Medicine. I think that there was very commonly an assumption that biomedicine is one thing over here and journalism and media are something else over here and maybe the media transmits information from biomedicine onto audiences or something like that. But as we began to study it more we could see that kind of separation of the two is wrong. In reality they are much more intertwined with one another any so we were trying to analyze how are they intertwined exactly. How does that work in practice?
One of the things that made the study of news coverage of health and medicine interesting was the fact that the field of health is itself a kind of crossroads; it’s a kind of boundary area where lots of different social fields overlap. Bourdieu has this theory of social fields and the way that they interact. There’s the field of science because there’s biomedical science and medical practice like this…but also it’s big business, right? So, there’s the economic field and also the state plays a big role in health and medicine because there’s regulation. For example, advertising in the medical field is regulated by the state in a way that other aspects of advertising aren’t. Health lies at the intersection of the economy and the state and science and then also what another theorist I often use, Habermas, calls “life world,” which is just the world of all of us living our lives…raising our children and dealing with life and death and so on. And then when you bring the media into that in part, what the journalists in do in covering health, is that they deal with the interaction of all of those different social fields and the kind of issues that come up because of the different points of view that are connected with those different social fields.
More and more the circulation of news goes through social media and scholars are working on that but it makes, in some ways, it makes our life much harder as scholars because it used to be that we…I used to feel years ago if I watched the main evening news broadcast, ABC, CBS, NBC, then I knew what news the public was seeing. Now of course everybody is seeing different news and it’s much more complicated in that way. I think it partly means that we have to be often a little bit more modest in the conclusions that we draw and and in the way we interpret any particular study because we always know that we only looking at one piece of the puzzle.
On research methods:
I’m very eclectic about methods. I basically believe that you figure out what your question is first and then you use the methods that you that are appropriate to answering the question. Methods that I use include content analysis which involves getting a sample of news media or some other kinds of media content and looking for the patterns in it and measuring those patterns…giving quantitative measurement of those patterns. I also do a lot of interpretive analysis that’s not actually that different from what a literary scholar would do. I do close readings of media texts. I also do comparative analysis. I look at media in different countries or different contexts in other ways, sometimes different historical periods or these days it could be online media versus print or television or something like that and I compare them.
On current topics in the media:
So in the last 24 hours the most interesting thing to me in the American news media has been the “racist tweet” by Trump against the four Democratic congress members who Trump is assuming are born somewhere else even though three of the four of them were born in the U.S. There’s been a big debate among the media about how to cover this and particularly about whether to use the word “racist.” This is a kind of a thing that’s come up a lot with Trump where he goes beyond the boundaries of what used to be acceptable in American politics and then the media have to figure out how to handle this. Partly Trump just really strains to old views of “objective” journalism. Normally the journalists avoid taking a stance on things which is involved in using a term like “lie” or “racist” or something like that. With Trump on occasion they do it and in this case some of them did. So, it’s been very interesting to see how they handle it and also all of this discussion amongst the journalists about how they should handle it.
On his current research projects:
The main thing that I’m working on right now is research on Latin American media systems. Before, I wrote a book with my Italian colleague about North American and western European media systems. That was a very very influential book. This is the book called “Comparing Media Systems” but it’s a narrow range of the different kinds of media systems that exist in the world that I’m very interested in thinking more broadly outside of that range. The main other area of the world that I study is Latin America. That’s the main work that I’m doing now is thinking about Latin American media systems. It’s also an interesting time to do it because everybody around the world is talking about populism and and populism is something that has a really long history in Latin America. The interaction of populist leaders with the media is a big part of what I study in Latin America. So I’m working on that and I’m also doing some continuing work on health news. One particular thing is my work on health news unlike some of my work is that it’s not comparative. It’s about the U.S. But of course the U.S. is peculiar in a lot of ways partly because it has a very commercialized health system which a lot of countries don’t have. So, I’ve been doing a study with some Norwegian colleagues that’s a comparative study of health news in the U.S., Norway, Britain, and Spain. We’re just wrapping this up now. We have our data and we’re about to start writing articles based on that.
I’ve taught lots of classes over the years including the basic introductory class which I liked a lot because I learn new things. I got to teach about things that I don’t know that much about. These days I have four main classes that I’m teaching. I teach a class on the American news media (COMM109N: Amer News Media) which is, these days, always really interesting because there’s always something crazy and interesting and important going on every single day. It’s easy to teach that class. I teach a class about Latin American media systems (COMM104G: Co/Media/Syst Latin Am) which is one of the things I’m studying now. I teach a junior seminar (COMM190) on mediatization of health and medicine where we look at all the different ways in which media and communication are involved in the health field. And then every year I teach a graduate methods class and I usually alternate between the two, the content analysis and the comparative analysis. I’m one of the main people who teaches methods for the graduate students. I actually include the methods in my undergraduate classes too. Particularly in the American News Media class all of the students write a paper where they analyze news. I don’t like to have just exams. I like students to really get their hands on some news and look at it and analyze it. So, I teach some about how to read a news story and write about it and how to do content analysis if you want to do that. You know, how to sample and explain what sample you’re using how to study news in a systematic way so that you can really claim that you are not just kinda giving your comments on a news story but you really studied it and produced some knowledge about it. People make all kinds of claims about “news” or the kinds of media content in this era. It’s really common to make claims about them and comments but that’s different from really studying it systematically. One of the things that’s interesting is that very often I have this experience and students have this experience that they have a particular assumption about how “the media” is covering something. But then when they actually look at it carefully they realize that that assumption was wrong. One thing they often find is that different media are covering it differently but very often they find that, no, that’s actually not right. Just one example of that: I remember one of the most popular topics was that “swine flu pandemic” years ago. You know, lot’s of students wrote about that and everybody assumed that “oh the media are hyping it.” But then when they actually looked at the news content they could see that wasn’t true at all. The media were being very careful actually about how they explained this is what we know and what we don’t know. They were doing exactly what the public health officials were trying to do which was based on this big “risk communication strategy” that they had been developing for years and years and so, yeah, it wasn’t hyped actually. It was very cautious and the hype was more in social media and popular culture and so on. But not in news media.
On advising doctoral students:
Working with the graduate students is one of the things that is really exciting for a faculty member because the graduate students are always studying something new. Our department is very holistic. They get introduced to a wide range…they don’t have, like, a narrow specialization and they don’t follow right in the footsteps of a faculty member. They don’t work on the big project by a faculty member and they are assigned a particular piece of it. Instead they encounter a lot of different kinds of ideas and different approaches and they put together something new of their own. And I work with a pretty wide range of graduate students. So some of them are doing work that’s pretty closely connected to mine: comparative analysis of news, you know, something like that. But I also work with students doing very different kinds of things and so that’s kind of fun. I learn about new things that way.
Like a lot of faculty members I’m not in any hurry to retire so, um, when I do it will be sort of a practical thing and I will try and stay as engaged as I can both in my scholarship and with the students.