The work and 'architecture of listening': Requisites for ethical organisation-public communication
Communication has been identified as 'the organising element of human life' and the basis of human society by sociologists and communication theorists. However, human communication is widely conflated with voice and speaking, particularly in relation to public communication in its various forms including political, organisational, corporate, and marketing communication and cognate disciplinary fields such as public relations. The essential corollary of affording and exercising voice - listening - is extensively discussed in an interpersonal and intra-organisational context, but it is little examined in terms of organisation-public interaction, which is a feature of industrialised societies. This paper critically examines this gap in the literature and reports findings of a pilot study that identify an important direction for further research essential to enhancing democracy, social justice and equity, and the ethics of organisation-public communication.
Keywords: voice, listening, speaking, organisational communication, engagement, ethics
Communication theorists and sociologists identify communication as ‘the organizing element of human life’ (Littlejohn and Foss 2008: 4) and the basis of human society (e.g., Carey 1989; Dewey 1916). Raymond Williams wrote extensively about the importance of communication in creating and sustaining communities and societies, echoing Dewey in saying ‘society is a form of communication’ (1976 : 10). Other scholars note that humans ‘cannot not communicate’ (Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson 2008 : 48). Even silence communicates – an important principle informing this analysis. However, a review of the literature shows that human communication is widely conflated with voice and speaking, particularly in relation to public communication and the public sphere.
The valorisation of voice
Voice and speaking, including public speaking, have been studied since the early Western civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome where rhetoric – the art of speaking persuasively – became recognised as one of the foundational liberal arts based on the writings and oratory of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian (Atwill 1998; Kennedy 1994). Democracy is founded on the principle of vox populi – the voice of the people. Rhetoric with its focus on speaking remains one of the major traditions of human communication scholarship and practice identified by Craig (1999) and expounded in a number of communication theory texts (e.g., Craig and Muller 2007; Littlejohn and Foss 2008).
In democratic societies, ‘free speech’ is much prized and citizens and ‘stakeholders’ are regularly urged to find their voice, ‘speak up’ and ‘have their say’. For instance, a Google search of the term ‘have your say’ in late 2014 yielded 605 million web links ranging from local, state and national government sites to airport authorities, universities, the BBC programme called ‘Have your say’ and the TuneIn ‘World have your say’ site. Similarly, a search of the term ‘speak up’ yielded 122 million web links to sites such as ‘Speak up to stop bullying’ to the ‘Speak up’ initiative of Project Tomorrow, a non-profit education organisation in the US.
When citizens experience a lack or loss of voice, scholars point to significant social, cultural, and political problems. For instance, Husband (2000) and others have drawn attention to the lack of voice in any meaningful sense afforded to ethnic minorities and argue that this constitutes inequity and injustice. Feminist scholarship similarly has identified lack of voice available to many women as a social inequity negatively impacting the status and identity of women in many societies, which has added to the tradition of debate focused on speaking, voice and representation (e.g., Butler 1999; Weatherall 2002). Dreher, who has particularly examined the plight of marginalised groups, has noted that ‘in much research and advocacy, there is a strong emphasis on voice, representation, speaking up and talking’ as enablers of democracy and social equity (2009: 446, emphasis added). We are told that ‘voice matters’, not only for interpersonal communication, but for participation in society, identity, and social equity (Couldry 2010, 2012).
Communication and voice are widely conceptualised as dialogic, informed by the work of Bakhtin (1981, 1984 ), Buber (1958 , 2002 ), and Gadamer’s (1989) concept of openness to the other and his critique of monologue. In his classic work Communication as sulture, Carey (1989) draws on Burke, Heidegger, and Dewey to emphasise the importance of conversation in human society. Communication theorists such as Craig and Muller (2007) and Littlejohn and Foss (2008) emphasise two-way transactional understandings of communication over one-way transmissional views. Baxter (2011) describes relationships as necessarily dialogical encounters, and fields of applied public communication such as public relations lay claim to a two-way dialogic approach and even symmetry between organisations and their publics (J. Grunig, L. Grunig and Dozier 2006; Kent and Taylor 2002). But even two-way transactional notions of communication can be interpreted as and translated into practice as turn-taking in speaking.
The missing corollary of speaking
Craig says that communication involves ‘talking and listening’ (2006: 39) and Couldry sees voice as ‘the implicitly linked practices of speaking and listening’ (2009: 580). However, examination of scholarly and professional literature reveals that communication and voice are predominantly associated with speaking and that there is little attention paid in many fields of research or communication practice to the vital corollary – listening.
Bickford (1996) pointed this out in the context of politics and the public sphere in her landmark text The dissonance of democracy: Listening, conflict and citizenship in which she criticised the lack of attention to listening – a cause recently taken up by Dobson (2014) in Listening for democracy, which explicitly critiques a lack of listening in contemporary democratic politics, but which can be equally applied to many aspects of civil society. Other recent analyses such as those by Couldry (2012), Coleman (2013a), and Bimber, Flanagin and Stohl (2012), while not specifically addressing listening, identify a lack of recognition felt by citizens today, which is closely linked to listening as will be shown.
Bimber et al. (2012) usefully identify and examine the role of organisations in contemporary civil society and the use of new media and communication technologies for engagement between organisations and citizens. But even in the age of Web 2.0 and interactive ‘social media’ that, hypothetically, increase two-way communicative interaction, Crawford has noted that ‘“speaking up” has become the dominant metaphor for participation in online spaces’ and ‘listening is not a common metaphor for online activity’ (2009: 526).
For voice to matter, as Couldry (2010) quite rightly says it should, speakers and texts need to have listeners. It is important at this juncture to identify what is meant by listening. Importantly, listening is more than tokenistic attention or cursory consideration. Glenn (1989) has identified 50 different definitions of listening in a literature review in the International Journal of Listening. However, key elements of listening that are consistently described in the literature are giving recognition and attention to others (Bickford 1996; Husband 2009: 441; Honneth 2007), engaging in interpretation to try to understand what others have to say (Husband 1996, 2000), ‘receiving and constructing meaning from spoken and/or non-verbal messages’ which involves giving consideration to what others say, and responding in some way (Lundsteen 1979; Purdy and Borisoff 1997: 6, emphasis added). Bickford (1996) noted that such processes involve work.
Listening is crucially informed by Gadamer’s (1989) concept of openness. He noted that, as a prerequisite to listening, ‘one must want to know’ what others have to say. He added that openness requires not only passive listening, but asking questions and allowing others to ‘say something to us’ even when what they have to say may be against us (as cited in Craig and Muller 2007: 219-220). Pelias and VanOosting (1987) identified inactive, active, interactive and proactive as four levels of engagement between speakers and audiences, with an emphasis on the more advanced levels. Bakhtin’s dialogism (1981, 1984 ) and Buber’s description of dialogue (1958 , 2002 ), monologue and ‘monologue disguised as dialogue’ also inform the processes of listening. Conquergood (1985) sees dialogue including the ‘performance of listening’ as a ‘path to genuine understanding of others’ and essential for ethical engagement with others (1985: 9). Writing in the International Journal of Listening, Gehrke (2009) is another who has pointed to an ethical requirement for listening and called for a broad methodological approach drawing on phenomenology, dialogism, and relational dialectics as well as democratic political theory.
Researchers warn of many pitfalls in listening and faux listening strategies including pseudolistening, selective listening, and defensive listening (Adler and Rodman 2012: 136). Waks’s concepts of cataphatic listening (a selective and only partially attentive approach that assigns what others say to prefigured categories) and apophatic listening (in which a listener sets aside prefigured categories and presumptions and is temporarily silent and open to what others say) also contribute to a framework in which to examine listening (Waks 2007, 2010).
Organisations and audiences
While studies of interpersonal communication and citizen participation in democracy such as those of Coleman (2013a; 2013b), Couldry (2010, 2012), Crawford (2009), Dreher (2009, 2012), and Penman and Turnbull (2012) have recognised listening as an essential part of communication and affording voice that matters, examinations of listening have rarely turned their attention to organisations, other than specialist disciplinary studies of intra-organisational communication between management and employees, analyses of entities that function specifically as representative organisations, and some nascent attention paid to listening in public relations and corporate communication (e.g., Burnside-Lawry 2011; Gregory 2014). This is a significant gap because in industrialised societies with ‘institutionalised’ politics and social systems (Chadwick 2006), or what Couldry calls ‘complex societies’ (2010: 100), citizens not only work in and are represented through organisations, but they need to interact with an array of organisations in accessing goods and services, complying with laws and regulations, and living as agentic social actors. These include government departments and agencies, corporations, various non-government organisations (NGOs), institutions such as police, hospitals, libraries, schools, universities, museums, associations, clubs, foundations, local businesses, councils, and so on.
In their book Collective action in organizations: Interaction and engagement in an era of technological change, Bimber et al. (2012) identify the traditional and continuing central role of organisations in contemporary civil societies and usefully explore how individuals today engage with organisations using an increasing array of media and communication technologies. However, as the title indicates, they focus on specialist ‘collective action’ organisations and their acts of representation. Similarly, Couldry discusses organisations in the sense that they serve as ‘mechanisms of representation’ providing ‘distributed forms of voice’ for individuals they represent (2010: 101). While providing valuable contributions to the discussion of voice and listening, particularly in relation to democratic politics, these analyses do not examine how the policies, cultures, structures, and systems of organisations in general – governmental, institutional and corporate as well as political – facilitate or hinder citizen engagement, participation, and social equity.
In her analysis of voice in multicultural communities and marginalised groups, Dreher pointed to the need to shift focus and responsibility from individuals and communities speaking up to ‘the institutions and conventions which enable and constrain receptivity and response’ (2009: 456). But a search of communication literature reveals that discussion of listening is strikingly absent from most articles and textbooks including major communication texts such as Craig and Muller (2007) and Littlejohn and Foss (2008). Those that do discuss listening exclusively focus on interpersonal listening at an individual and small group level.
Within disciplinary fields that focus specifically on public communication by organisations such as public relations and corporate communication as well as specialist sub-fields such as community relations, it is particularly troubling that organisational listening is little studied or discussed. This is despite claims that two-way interaction, dialogue, engagement, relationships and even symmetrical communication are core concepts in these fields of applied public communication (L. Grunig, J. Grunig and Dozier 2002; Kent and Taylor 2002).
For example, a search of articles published in Public Relations Review and Journal of Public Relations Research, identified as the two most representative PR journals globally (Kim at al. 2014), found a distinct lack of research and critical analysis of listening. A keyword search of Public Relations Review articles published between 1976 and 2014 found only 217 that mention listening anywhere in their text, with only two focused specifically on listening (Foreman-Wernet and Dervin 2006; Lee 2012). A search of Journal of Public Relations Research identified 123 articles that mention the word ‘listening’, but none focus specifically on listening.
Listening also receives little focus in PR and corporate communication research books and textbooks that inform practice. For instance, ‘listening’ does not appear in the index of the main ‘Excellence theory’ text, which is widely recognised as representing the dominant model of public relations practice (Grunig, et al. 2002), or in the index or contents of a dozen other international texts examined (e.g., Botan and Hazelton 2006; Cornelissen 2011; Wilcox and Cameron 2010). PR and corporate communication texts that do discuss listening exhibit an organisation-centric, instrumental approach such as Cutlip & Center’s effective public relations, which says ‘effective public relations starts with listening’, but discusses this only as part of ‘systematic’ and ‘scientific research’ to understand audiences so that they can be targeted with messages designed to achieve the organisation’s goals (Broom 2009: 271–272). In Today’s public relations: An introduction, Heath and Coombs (2006) say ‘today’s public relations practitioner gives voice to organizations’ and add that ‘this process requires the ability to listen’. But they go on to configure listening narrowly by saying ‘listening gives a foundation for knowing what to say and thinking strategically of the best ways to frame and present appealing messages’ (ibid: 346).
As Couldry argues, contemporary neoliberalism offers proliferating opportunities for voice, but not necessarily listening. Taachi similarly notes that voice ‘may be encouraged’ among citizens and stakeholders, ‘but nevertheless not be heard’ (2009: 170). Coleman observes that contemporary societies are ‘noisier and more talkative than they used to be, with billions of messages … buzzing around the internet every day’, but he says ‘there is a problem’. His research suggests that ‘the chances of them being heard by the people they hope to address are slim’ (2013b: 3). Such concerns were the genesis of this research project and the pilot study reported in the following, which set out to investigate the extent to which and how organisations listen to their stakeholders and publics.
Pilot study – three case studies
To explore organisational listening, a research project was begun in 2012-2013 involving in-depth qualitative research using interviews and content analysis of relevant documents. A pilot study was completed in Australia to inform and help design an ongoing ‘organisational listening project’ involving a larger sample of private and public sector organisations internationally.
The ‘organisational listening’ project is multidisciplinary, informed by the literature on listening as discussed in this analysis, as well as theories of human communication drawn from the ‘seven traditions’ identified by Craig including rhetorical, sociopsychological, phenomenological, and sociocultural perspectives (Craig 1999; Craig and Muller 2007; Littlejohn and Foss, 2008), and contemporary theories of public relations, corporate communication, and organisational communication. In addition, organisational listening is usefully examined within the framework of Habermas’s (1984 , 1987 ) Theory of communicative action, which affords identification of genuine ‘communicative’ action in contrast with ‘strategic’ action that, either openly or in a concealed way, uses communication for persuasion and even manipulation to serve organisational interests. Habermas said ethical communication must include willingness among participants to try to understand others, consideration of others’ as well as one’s own interests, equal opportunity to express those interests, opportunity to argue against suggestions that may harm one’s interest, and protection against ‘closure’ – i.e., shutting down discussion (Habermas 1990).
The pilot study examined three organisations with active public communication programmes: a large information technology company; a medium size service provider enterprise, and a large public sector institution. Anonymity was requested and a condition of agreement to participate in the study.
Noting that self-reporting by organisation staff has the potential to overstate listening and that some organisations may be reluctant to make admissions that indicate a lack of listening, the project used a triangulation approach to draw data from several sources. A primary research method deployed was semi-structured in-depth interviews with senior managers of various communication-related functions such as corporate communication, public relations, marketing communication, and customer relations who were considered best-placed to report on communication by the organisation. However, a limitation of interviews is that practitioners can make inflated and unsubstantiated claims about organisational listening. To overcome these limitations, the study also sought and collected documents that provided evidence of communication activities such as communication and engagement plans, reports of communication/engagement projects and programmes, job descriptions of staff employed in communication related roles to identity key responsibilities, accountabilities and tasks, and even time sheets and work schedules of staff involved in public communication, which identified actual activities undertaken.
Interviews with seven executives across the three organisations were digitally recorded and transcribed and, together with relevant documents, were analysed using a coding scheme and content analysis methodology (Shoemaker and Reese 1996). As well as the term ‘listening’, the coding scheme included a wide range of key words and terms that could be considered synonymous with or related to organisational listening, such as ‘feedback’, ‘input’, ‘customer insights’, ‘formative research’, ‘consultation’, ‘submissions received’, ‘letters’, ‘replies’, and ‘response’, as well concepts explored such as ‘two-way’, ‘dialogue’, ‘conversation’, ‘engagement’, and ‘interactivity’.
The ‘crisis of listening’
The pilot study of organisational listening found that, other than for strategic planning and targeting purposes, organisations listen to stakeholders sporadically, often in tokenistic ways and sometimes not at all. When organisations do listen to stakeholders and publics, it is instrumental – that is, to serve their own interests. For example, despite all organisations studied making explicit claims for listening to their key stakeholders, one even saying ‘we’re a listening organisation’, the following were noted.
- The job descriptions of the heads of communication, marketing, and public relations in organisations and of senior positions in those roles contained no reference to functions related to listening such as collecting and evaluating feedback, formative research, or responding to stakeholder opinion or concerns. While job descriptions do not necessarily reflect actual work done, they indicate organisation priorities and are often linked to performance measurement.
- Two of three organisations studied undertake market research. But this was described in terms of how it informed the development of strategy to achieve organisational goals and objectives. This confirms the finding by Foreman-Wernet and Dervin in one of the few studies of organisational listening in PR literature, who concluded that ‘audience research in the arts is dominated by marketing-oriented surveys … this work is primarily administrative in nature, geared toward mapping audiences as consumers so that audience size can be maintained or increased’ (2006: 288).
- There was no mention of changing organisation behaviour to meet stakeholders’ or publics’ concerns, interests, or needs in any plans or reports reviewed. There were only references to organisational concerns, interests, and needs and achieving organisational objectives.
- Social media were used by all three organisations, comprised of one corporate blog and three Twitter accounts, but these primarily involved one-way transmission of organisation messages, with the blog and one Twitter account managed by marketing to promote products and the Twitter accounts averaging 98 per cent broadcast tweets compared with 2 per cent direct messages or responses to others. In several instances, the organisations did not respond to inquiries and questions on their social media or web sites.
- The only other method consistent to all three organisations examined was traditional and social media monitoring, but this was focused in all cases on tracking the organisations’ messages as part of measurement and evaluation of their PR, monitoring their brand image, and surveillance, not as an active listening mechanism.
- The only organisation function that appears to make any sustained effort to listen and respond to publics is customer relations. However, this analysis found that most customer interaction is focused on pacification and resolving problems following complaints in order to preserve revenue/customers/clients and protect the reputation of the organisation, rather than open listening.
While a limitation of this study is that it involved a small sample in the pilot stage reported, the findings summarised here are supported by a number of studies of political campaigns, online public consultation by government agencies, and organisational use of social media allegedly for ‘engagement’ (e.g., Macnamara 2013, 2014) which show that Couldry’s claimed ‘crisis of voice’ in contemporary societies (2008: 389; 2009: 581) is better described as a crisis of listening.
The work and ‘architecture of listening’ in organisations
This research reveals that the so-called ‘communication’ functions of organisations such as advertising, which is inevitably one-way transmission of information, as well as public relations, corporate communication, and even customer relations and community relations, are primarily devoted to doing the work of speaking on behalf of organisations. Both public and private sector organisations today create a substantial architecture of speaking, comprised of systems such as web sites, databases, and mailing lists; technology such as teleconferencing, videoconferencing, data mining, and presentation software; information production such as advertising campaigns, speeches, reports, newsletters, brochures, and events; and dedicated staff and facilities for information production and distribution. Many organisations – government, corporate and institutional – spend seven-figure sums of money a year on resources and systems for speaking. Conversely, most do not have an architecture of listening or do the work of listening.
It is proposed that an architecture of listening designed into an organisation with appropriate structures and systems as well as the work of listening are necessary and important in organisations because listening, which is often challenging even at an individual or small group level, becomes a much more complex undertaking at an organisational level where it needs to be large-scale and increasingly multimodal. Organisations have to deal with what Dobson calls the problem of ‘scaling up’ (2014: 75 and 124), as they are expected to listen to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people, whether they are conceptualised as citizens, publics, stakeholders, customers, audiences, communities, or ‘consumers’ in neoliberal capitalist terms. They also need to listen to voice expressed in multiple mediated forms including letters, submissions, petitions and, increasingly, email, texting, web comments, and social media posts. Organisational listening can be achieved only to a very limited extent aurally or through traditional speech acts or rhetorical techniques. While organisational listening requires cognitive, affective (e.g., empathic) and behavioural responses by relevant organisation staff at an individual level, as discussed by Cooper (1997) and Wolvin and Coakley (1994), it also requires policies, structures, management systems, and operational processes, as well as what Coleman calls the ‘technologies of hearing’ (2013b: 3).
The 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns gave some insights into how large-scale voices can be mobilised and made to feel valued and ‘matter’ through the creation of an architecture of listening and doing the work of listening – e.g., the Obama Online Operation referred to as ‘Triple O’ (Macnamara 2014). The MIT Deliberatorium, an online consultation experiment that has been running for a number of years, also has provided useful information on the tools, aids, structures, and systems required for large-scale listening such as specialised argumentation software (Klein 2007; Iandoli, Klein and Zolla 2009). Sense-making methodology has been extensively used in audience/user research in the information science and technology fields (Dervin, Foreman-Wernet and Lauterbach 2003). These provide some pointers to mechanisms to address the challenges of large-scale organisational listening.
While technologies can provide tools to aid listening, such as media and internet monitoring and text analysis software, the concept of an architecture of listening is not an argument for technological determinism. The term ‘architecture of listening’ is used in preference to Coleman’s (2013b) ‘technologies of hearing’ because of the limited physiological nature of hearing and because organisational listening has cultural, political, structural, and resource dimensions as well as technological elements. Preliminary findings in this project suggest that an architecture of listening in organisations requires the following elements which are topics for further research:
- Culture which needs to be open to listening as defined by Honneth (2007), Husband (1996, 2009) and, most recently, Gregory (2014) – that is, one that recognises others’ right to speak, pays attention to them, tries to understand their views and responds with at least acknowledgement. This is similar to Coleman’s identification of ‘ideology’ as a barrier to organisational listening (2013b: 3).
- Policies that address issues of power differentials and the ‘politics of listening’ by inviting comment and discussion and allocate resources to listening as well as speaking (see also element 6).
- Systems that are open and interactive, such as web sites that allow visitors to post comments and questions, vote, and so on.
- Technological tools to aid listening, such as monitoring tools or services for tracking media and online comment; automated acknowledgement systems; text analysis software for sense-making when large volumes of discussion occurs, and even argumentation software to facilitate meaningful dialogue, consultation and debate.
- Human resources (staff) assigned to operate listening systems and do the work of listening, such as establishing spaces such as forums, inviting comment, monitoring, analysing, and responding to comments and questions); and
- Articulation of what the organisation ‘hears’ to policy-making and decision-making. While listening does not imply or require universal agreement, unless there is a link to policy-making and decision-making for consideration of what is said to an organisation, voice has no value – or, in Couldry’s terms, it does not matter.
Analysis of literature in relation to public communication and related fields such as the public sphere reveals a lack of attention to organisational listening. The first stage of the ‘organisational listening project’ suggests that government and private sector organisations do not listen to their stakeholders and publics other than for instrumental purposes to serve their own interests, and identifies particular challenges in undertaking organisational listening, which by necessity is usually large-scale (Dobson 2014), delegated rather than direct (Crawford 2009), and often mediated and multimodal.
This analysis proposes that, to listen effectively, organisations require an ‘architecture of listening’ incorporating a culture of listening, policies for listening, structures for listening, technologies for listening, resources for listening, and articulation of listening to decision-making to balance the ‘architecture of speaking’ which is a feature of dominant models of public communication practice. They also need to do the work of listening as well as the work of speaking.
The lack of organisational listening is arguably contributing to the ‘democratic deficit’ and disengagement from politics identified in a number of countries (Coleman 2013a; Couldry 2010: 49; Curran 2011: 86; Dobson 2014). In addition to such practical concerns, the lack of attention to organisational listening has significant ethical implications which need to be brought into the foreground in place of the focus on communication ‘effectiveness’ defined in narrow organisation-centric terms. Habermas’s (1990) call for ‘communicative’ action rather than ‘strategic’ action explicitly identifies listening as a requirement of ethical communication – a call taken up in listening literature by Conquergood (1985) and Gehrke (2009). In discussion of rhetoric and writing, Surma (2005) and Ornatowski (2003) identify dialogic engagement as necessary for ethical practice. Furthermore, the dominant paradigm of public relations described as ‘excellence theory’, as well as the work of critical PR scholars (e.g., Pieczka 2011), identifies two-way dialogic engagement with publics as the only ethical form of PR. This study concludes that an agenda for reform is necessary in political, government, corporate and organisational communication focused on listening to restore ethical practice and enhance democracy, civil society, and social justice and equity.
 ‘Stakeholders’ is a term proposed by R. Edward Freeman (1984) in his book Strategic management: A stakeholder approach denoting individuals and groups that can affect or are affected by the activities of an organisation and which have a legitimate interest in the operations of the organisation
 Public relations scholars Jim Grunig and Todd Hunt (1984) coined the term ‘publics’ (plural) to refer to groups of people with whom interaction is desirable or necessary. The concept has been given weight since by sociologists and political scientists such as Nina Eliasoph (2004), who called for broad-based replacement of the singular term ‘public’ with the plural ‘publics’ to recognise social plurality and diversity
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Note on the contributor
Jim Macnamara, PhD, is Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, a position he took up in 2007 after a 30-year professional career spanning journalism, public relations and media research. He holds a BA in Journalism, Media Studies and Literary Studies; an MA by Research in Media Studies, and a PhD in Media Research. He is the author of 15 books including Public relations theories, practices, critiques, published by Pearson Australia in 2012, The 21st century media (r)evolution: Emergent communication practices, Peter Lang, New York, second edition 2014, and Journalism and PR: Unpacking 'spin': Stereotypes and media myths, Peter Lang, New York, 2014. Email: email@example.com.