Credit. R. Crumb, 1977
In the current cultural environment, which inundates us with media content whether we like it or not (airport lounges, elevators, gas pumps…), much of it unfiltered (Twitter, Facebook, blogs), it might be useful to consider what scholars have observed about how journalism and journalists work.
Studies of the practice of news production provide many insights. While some of these studies were done decades ago (e.g. Gans, Gitlin), they are still relevant.
“News” is not something that journalists find but something that journalists participate in constructing, and journalists construct “news” through discourse. In the late, great James Carey’s (1992) ritual conception of communication, “the purpose of news is not to represent and inform but to signal, tell a story.” News is both a form and a product of culture, maintaining culture (values, norms…) over time, through story-telling. Media content is a source and a manifestation of culture, a form of cultural mapping that contributes to the construction of social norms and deviance, and journalistic standards and practices are means of defining media content, constructing news. As sociologist of journalism Michael Schudson has explained, journalists are “cultural actors” who produce news according to a system of “stored cultural meanings and patterns of discourse.”
The professionalization of journalism has enabled journalists to construct and maintain cultural authority for themselves — a role in defining what is news and what is not, a gate-keeping function. Journalists construct their cultural authority by employing their “god-terms of facts, truth, and reality,” as mass communication scholar Barbie Zelizer put it, to construct depictions of social reality. Journalists make choices in constructing the news that favor the interests of elites, in ways that are not necessarily intentional but simply “embedded in professional routines. By adhering to professional standards, practices, values and conventions, journalists participate in constructing and reconstructing social norms, and deviance from those norms.
While what journalists are expected to do is explain things, what they actually do is ritualistically construct and enforce social norms. By engaging in what communication scholar Carolyn Marvin has called “the ritual practice of yielding interpretive authority to experts,” journalists can convey the appearance of distancing themselves from the worldviews and values they depict in their stories. Media content tends to lean toward official stories, and journalists tend to rely on official sources inclined to maintain the status quo.
Sociologist Herbert Gans observed that the maintenance of social order is a key news value. He found that journalists routinize news selection by following conventions regarding sources (who counts as official, authoritative, and credible), substance (timeliness, controversy, prominence, the unusual), value (utility, entertainment), and audience appeal (human interest) in deciding what is news; and that they employ story selling, story buying, and story highlighting – the construction of what he called a highlighted reality — in the process of deciding what is news.
Gans observed that journalists engage in self-censorship by cooperating with people in power, and he noted that they do not appear to be aware of conforming to social norms. Journalists reaffirm the ideological status quo…by ridiculing deviance from the accepted “norm.” Journalistic practices that contribute to maintaining the status quo range from organizational-level media routines (pack journalism, reliance on other media, adherence to a standard set of news values) to professional conventions (objectivity, balance, fairness) to individual biases rooted in factors such as gender and class. Among personal values and beliefs that contribute to journalists’ decisions about what counts as news are ethnocentrism, “responsible capitalism,” individualism, and a belief in the need for social order.
Journalists adhere to professional conventions of objectivity, skepticism, and verifiability as a way of sustaining their cultural authority. The journalistic convention of objectivity has been deemed the most important in the profession, and journalists employ it as a “strategic ritual,” as sociologist Gaye Tuchman characterized it, a defensive routine to protect themselves from criticism.
Though journalists subscribe to the convention of objectivity as a means of avoiding bias, objectivity it has become a sort of bias in itself, according to Schudson (1978), an element of the social construction of news that keeps journalists dependent on official stories and sources. “News routines are skewed toward representing demands, individuals, and frames which do not fundamentally contradict the dominant hegemonic principles,” as social critic Todd Gitlin has said, including “the legitimacy of the social order secured and defined by dominant elites…. Simply by doing their jobs, journalists tend to serve…elite definitions of reality.” Most journalistic accounts “are presented from the inside out,” as mass communication scholar Meenakshi Gigi Durham has explained. “Information is collected and interpreted by people who are inside the dominant social order about those who are either inside or outside it, with no overt acknowledgment of these social locations or the implications thereof.”
Read Mother Jones, Off Our Backs, The Monthly Review , The Nation, The Progressive, Truth-Out, or listen to “Democracy Now” and you’ll get a different depiction of social reality than you will on CNN or in The Washington Post.
As a media analyst, I have a few suggestions. Know who owns your media (see http://www.freepress.net/ownership/chart for details). Know which media conglomerates are investing in the campaign to make us pay for access to the Internet – Comcast, for example (2011 revenues, $55.8 billion), which owns, among many other outlets, NBC Universal, Telemundo, USA, SyFy, CNBC, Bravo, Oxygen, Fandango, 50 percent of msnbc.com, and 32 percent of Hulu). Know that the Walt Disney Company (2011 revenues, $40.1 billion) owns, among many other media outlets, ABC TV, ESPN, Lifetime, 227 radio stations, Marvel Publishing, Pixar, Hollywood Records, Mammoth Records, Buena Vista Records, Lyric Street Records, Buena Vista Concerts, and Disney Theatrical Productions.
Diversify your sources. Develop your own media filters – don’t let mathematical algorithms do it for you (more on this topic in a future blog post). Become a critical consumer of media content. Check out the products of the Media Education Foundation – titles include “Advertising and the End of the World,” “Behind the Screens: Hollywood Goes Hypercommercial,” and “Rich Media, Poor Democracy.”
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Boudana, S. (2016). Impartiality is not fair: Toward an alternative approach to the evaluation of content bias in news stories, Journalism July 2016 17: 600-618.
Carey, J. (1992). Communication as culture: essays on media and society. New York: Routledge.
Durham, M. G. (1998). On the relevance of standpoint epistemology to the practice of journalism: the case for ‘strong objectivity.’ Communication Theory, 8(2), 117-140.
Gans, H. (1979). Deciding what’s news: a study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time. New York: Vintage.
Gitlin, T. (1980). The whole world is watching: mass media and the making and unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Schudson, M. (1995). The power of news. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press.
Schudson, M. (2003). The sociology of news. New York: W.W. Norton.
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Zelizer, B. (1997). Journalists as interpretive communities. In D. Berkowitz (Ed.), Social Meanings of News: A Text-Reader (pp. 401-419), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Zelizer, B. (2004). Taking journalism seriously: news and the academy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.