Breaking Up is Hard to Do – A parasocial explanation for why we care about media scandals

We care more about Matt Lauer being a creep (at best) than the thousands of managers at IT companies because we know Matt. We have breakfast with him every morning. Those other guys are just other guys, but he’s our Matt.

Odds are good that someone who works at your favorite pizza joint, the hardware store, or the grocery store on the corner has sexually harassed or assaulted someone. Mashable published an alphabetical list of harassment by industry — from astronomy and agriculture, through geology, to trucking, women are treated badly. According to one study, women without a high school diploma are assaulted at much higher rates than college graduates. IT and tech are notoriously hostile environments, and one report found 80% of women in the restaurant industry had been the victim of harassment. Unfortunately aside from the occasional high profile case the public rarely notices or cares. The thinking tends to be “boys will be boys and boy I hope this goes away soon.”

But Charlie Rose. And Mark Halperin. And Matt Lauer. And Garrison Keillor. And and and. And now we care. When we hear about sexual assault or abuse in tech or trucking, on farms or in labs, it’s about them. Some other jerk somewhere else behaved like a jerk somewhere else. But Matt, Charlie, Mark, Garrison are our friends. We’re on a first name basis. The revelations about what they do when they aren’t on TV in our bedroom are personal betrayals.

Of course we don’t know Matt, Mark, Garrison, or Charlie beyond the screen (and maybe their social media feed). And they have no idea who we are. But the connection feels real. That such is the case is not surprising to communication scholars and psychologists who argue we have parasocial interactions with television personalities that can develop into parasocial relationships. As explained, more or less, in an article in the journal Human Communication Research:

“…parasocial interaction referred to a media user’s reaction to a media performer such that the media user perceives the performer as an intimate conversational partner. A sense of conversational give-and-take often emerges during viewing and is strongest when the media performer bodily addresses the viewer through the camera. This early work by Horton and Wohl also alluded to a related concept, the parasocial relationship, which is a more enduring relationship that a media user forms with a mediated performer. While parasocial interaction is restricted to the viewing episode, a parasocial relationship can extend beyond any single viewing episode.”

Just as we do in real interactions with real people, we fill in conversational and conceptual gaps in our interactions with those we meet on TV. We ascribe motives to their actions, them backstories, and fill in the gaps about their life we don’t see. A 2015 study found that as we spend more time watching TV and on social media and less time actually talking to actual people, “viewers use parasocial relationships to maintain relationships with television characters, keep conflict alive, undergo catharsis, and develop a better understanding of themselves and their viewpoints.”

Social media can extend the effects of parasocial feelings that have in the past been limited to television viewing. A study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior last year found, “celebrities’ professional self-disclosure (e.g., sharing their work-related life), personal self-disclosure (e.g., sharing their personal life such as friends and family), and fans’ retweeting behavior, enhanced fans’ feeling of social presence, thereby positively affecting parasocial interaction with celebrities.”

I don’t watch Matt and Charlie. They talk to me.

There’s a waiter at Founding Farmers near my office I regularly see for breakfast. He seems like a nice guy and I tend to tip him well. But I go there for coffee, see him when I show up and leave him behind when I leave. I like the mechanic down the block and sometimes I give him my car for the day. Then I give him money and take my car back. But Matt, Charlie, Mark, and Garrison are in my house. I have coffee with Garrison in my kitchen. Matt and Charlie are in the TV room. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only place they ever are — Garrison lives in the radio in my kitchen. Matt and Charlie live in the TV in my basement. I always know what to expect from them. They always seem to say the right thing at the right time. Their tone is always appropriate to the situation. Matt, Charlie, Mark, and Garrison are reliable housemates and friends. We care about wrongdoing by newscasters and celebrities for the same reason do care about wrongdoing by our friends. And breaking up with Friends can be hard to do.

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