Small Media Effects?

As I was driving in to work this morning (northbound I-35 through Austin, TX), traffic was particularly bad. So bad, I thought “there must have been a traffic accident.”

As it turns out, there wasn’t. As far as I can tell, the traffic seemed to be slowing as it passed under an overpass just north of downtown (I believe it was the 11th Street overpass, but I could be mistaken). Glancing up, my attention was drawn to a small crowd of people. In the center of a crowd was a news cameraman who appeared to be shooting those morning scenes you see on the early morning news talking about what the traffic are like. He was surrounded by maybe half a dozen people whose function there was unknown and flanked by two police officers on either end of the overpass.

Immediately after the overpass, traffic loosened up and the flow returned to the speed limit. On the Southbound side, which had been relatively free-flowing south of the overpass, there seemed to be a coagulation of vehicles building up.

Now, it’s entirely possible that there had been some accident at that location earlier, one that had been cleared before I arrived on the scene. Or maybe the downtown exits were particularly busy and causing a chain reaction of brake lights (I drive that route every day, and the normal constriction of traffic usually occurs south of that particular area).

But it appeared to me this morning that people were slowing down as a direct result of the camera crew on the overpass. Whether this was just the normal slowdown that occurs when someone takes their eyes off the road to glance around or whether it was actually people recognizing that they were on television is an interesting (and unknowable) question.

I found this apparent phenomenon interesting. In reporting on the traffic conditions, the camera crew appeared to be having an adverse effect on traffic. For once, I literally WAS seeing an example of news media creating the story being reported.

All my media effects (not to mention my research methodology material about observer effects) came rushing back to me. I began to wonder two things:

  1. Theoretically, if traffic was being affected by media presence, it would make for an interesting consistent local source of news each morning. “Traffic is bad this morning” could become a consistent theme. Packaged with the broader social themes of an expanding population, the politics of public transportation (such as the desire for light rail), or any of a dozen issues surrounding the environment or the local economy, these images can serve as a powerful form of visual evidence that Austin is becoming more crowded or busier. But are these images a valid representation of these issues if the presence of a cameraman is contributing to traffic conditions?

  2. Practically, if this phenomenon was not a product of coincidence (that there was a relationship between the individuals on the bridge and the traffic behavior), wouldn’t a far better solution for gathering this information be through a stationary, unmanned camera source? I understand the logistical implications of public surveillance (to say nothing of the concerns over civil rights, which was one of the issues addressed in my dissertation), but would it simply not be cheaper for the city to install a camera in this location that provided a feed to media outlets (or even Internet users) who wished to use it? Wouldn’t this be cheaper than having a cameraman with truck and gear stationed there (and the two police officers assigned to him)?

Two interesting areas of inquiry based on one glance in traffic this morning. I’m reminded how salient sociological research can be, once you pull it from its classroom delivery room.