The Production of News Media

Media workers, especially those producing news media, are theoretically bound to the promotion of the ideal of the public sphere. According to this journalists should aim to produce news stories based on rational thought, which are accurate and balanced and which are equally critical of all information included. However there are strong arguments which suggest that the ideal of the public sphere is just that, an ideal. In truth, the practises of journalists and other media personnel are far removed from what is expected of them. News media is not made up of a combination of information which is selected from a wide variety of sources. Rather news is in fact produced, or created. This essay will first focus on what is meant by this statement. It will then go on to explain how the production of news is influenced by organisational and societal pressures such as newsroom socialisation, media control and the power and proliferation of the public relations industry. Different uses of media studies theories will be discussed to explain ways in which media production works. Included throughout the essay will be practical examples, illustrating how the news is literally produced by media organisations.

As Gilman suggests, journalists have long been thought of as ‘gatekeepers’ of information, meaning they can control what and what isn’t discussed by the public (2008: 249). The process of selectively choosing the information to be included in a news story and whether it is to be represented favourably or negatively is called framing (ibid.) Tuchman cites Goffman as explaining that framing is the act of ‘bringing some aspects of reality into view while excluding others’ (2002: 86). Goffman’s idea of framing fits with the notion that media products are constructed representations of reality proposed by O’Shaughnessy et al. (2008: 35). O’Shaughnessy et al. make another important point as they explain that the media is owned, created and controlled by a select few who have the important privilege of making sense of society on behalf of all those who interact with the media each day, that is to say the majority of the public. Importantly these select few often regard the media as a medium for creating profit (ibid: 36). The idea of news workers as gatekeepers is legitimate; editors and journalists must frame available information to construct an accurate reality for their audience. However it is when this process does not rely on the principles of journalism, accuracy and balance, that gatekeeping can produce warped representations. As Tuchman (2002: 82) suggests ‘News is a product, manufactured, sold and consumed daily’. News is produced by powerful entities to set the agenda for public discussion and as a means to maximise profit.

Manning explains that the modern day journalist must contend with the need to keep costs down, deliver ratings, preserve circulation, and satisfy advertisers (2000:12). Tuchman suggests that it is the context of journalists rather than individual bias which determines the outcome of news production (2002: 80). She explains that to get the best possible insight into how news is produced it is necessary to examine news at more than one level. These levels are ‘political economic preconditions, organisational enactment and textual articulation’ (ibid: 88). Studying news texts can be useful in finding media organisations’ agendas, as news values are often encoded into texts (Gilman 2008: 248). However as the main argument here is centred on the production of news, it would be more useful to look at the theories of social constructionism and political economy.

The socialisation of news production can be seen by the way workers in a newsroom may adopt shared customs and values (Gilman 2008: 248). All news organisations have what is called a news culture; these are the attitudes and behaviours that characterise the operations of news production (ibid.) Tuchman cites Gitlin as explaining that journalists commonly favour interests that follow the institutional position of their organisation (2002: 87). This isn’t always conscious and is often reinforced by organisational practices (ibid.) Importantly Gitlin also explains that news is often presented in a way that purveys the myth of professionalism and objectivity. However news only really favours a small number of agendas, which is so because journalists have been socialised into their organisation (ibid.) Researchers have used ethnographic research to observe newsroom socialisation and news production.

Lujak (2000) provided a case study of a small television newsroom at a station in Madison, Wisconsin. He found that even on such a small scale, there were occasions where news was most definitely produced. He noted the case of Roger Holms, one of the station’s anchors and a feature reporter. He specialised in soft news stories about ‘extraordinary’ local people. Holms openly confessed to Lujak that when confronted with someone he deemed uninspiring he would do his utmost to make them seem interesting, telling him, ‘it’s not my job to make them look bad.’ Holms considered himself to be doing the PR job of the station (2000: 20-21). Lujak observed that another anchor, Anne Marshall, was producing a story about a local professor researching the cure for the common cold. Marshall had many of the station’s workers filmed sneezing and blowing their noses, with the footage to be used in correlation to the story she was working on (ibid: 22). This is a relatively small act of viewer deception but it does show how fabricated acts can be included in news stories.

A seminal ethnographic study of the BBC news was conducted by Schlesinger and first published in 1978. Schlesinger provides an insight into how employees working in the newsrooms encompass the organisation’s ideology into what they produce and how the BBC represent a wider British ideology. Schlesinger outlined the strict editorial process which occurred at the BBC , a process that many journalists when questioned by Schlesinger seemed unaware off (1987: 135). The editorial process began with daily meetings between the heads of news at the BBC . These meetings involved discussing the day’s new stories and proposing preferred angles, basically they were used to set the news agenda (ibid: 50-52). The content of the minutes from the meeting were then passed down until they reached newsroom duty editors (ibid: 143-144 & 147). These editors were thoroughly socialised and were expected to enforce the agenda set by the news heads (ibid: 147). There was often no direct contradiction between the agenda of the organisation and that of journalists. As one journalist put it, ‘you write stories for the Editor, not the audience,’ (ibid: 107). It seems that subtle reinforcement by the BBC , such as rewarding those who fall in line with lead stories had made sure that most workers were thoroughly socialised with the BBC ’s chosen ideology (ibid: 151). Schlesinger makes an important point by suggesting that though the BBC aims to portray impartiality and independence from any social or political allegiances, the news it produces aligns with the established order. It reflects the ‘underlying social and economic order’ of the British political system (ibid: 170). Many major news organisations are ideologically similar to the established order in their country. Gans (1979) suggests that US journalists share the same basic values based on American ideology. Gamson (1992) explains these American values, such as liberty and justice are reflected in the news. Sallach (1985) argues that ‘an event is not just a happening in the world, it is a relation between a certain happening and a given symbolic system’ (Tuchman 2002: 88). Journalists are socialised into producing news according to their organisation’s agenda, which is in turn influenced by other larger factors.

Political economy theory is useful in finding which economic, social and political factors manipulate news content. It suggest that the media will serve the interests of whoever owns and controls it, whether this be individuals aiming for profit or governments aiming for control (O’SHaughnessy et al. 2008: 21). Schudson (1991) suggests this can be used to explain how media representations limit political and cultural agendas. A somewhat extreme model of political economy called the ‘Propaganda Model’ was proposed by Chomsky and Herman (1988). It suggests that the elite are in control of the media and therefore it is used to manufacture consent over the public. Chomsky and Herman suggest five filters that information is affected by before becoming news. These are ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak and fear (Herman 2003). Herman suggests that as the media is embedded in a market system, owners often use media for profit making and must therefore please advertisers with news content (ibid.). Sourcing refers to where information for news is derived from, while flak is criticism from interested parties which is used to discredit and manage public information (ibid.). Fear is the use of the media to promote scare campaigns against things not seen as ideologically sound. For example the Western media used the concept of fear against the communist Soviet Union during the Cold War (ibid.). A practical example of political economy in action can be seen by examining CNN ’s coverage of the first Gulf War (Eldridge et al. 1994). CNN in keeping with the US government’s policy, presented the war as tactical and clean. The use of laser-guided missiles was greatly promoted while the use of B-52 bomber planes and Napalm was covered up (ibid: 118-119). It was later found that there was only minimal use of ‘smart bombs’ of which 40 per cent missed their targets and though the war was promoted by the US government and CNN as clean, around 8,000 Iraqi civilians were killed (Miller 2002: 75). This example proves that news can misrepresent actual events and be used in favour of those who control it.

The idea of sourcing presented in the Propaganda Model is very important. Apart from news being manipulated to fit with certain agendas, it can also be considered produced due to the proliferation of public relations material that can be found in news today. News is traditionally built around and favours the agendas of people with authority or legitimacy, such as politicians. Hall (1978) calls these people primary definers and suggests they sit atop the ‘hierarchy of credibility’. Journalists gather information from regular news beats; places where legitimised events often occur (Tuchman 1978: 210). Journalists then frame their stories based on the ‘bureaucratic phase structures’ of the source (Fishman 1980). This is seen when journalists cover crime stories, their articles are based completely around police reports.

Though it is now established that the media favours socially authoritative sources, organisations have begun to seek publicity by acting publicly or in a newsworthy way, essentially creating news (Grossberg et al. 1998: 330). Due to lack of resources, enterprise journalism is declining and rather than journalists pulling information together, sources are now pushing their agendas (Tuchman 2002: 89). PR companies are literally producing news on behalf of their clients to be fed to the media. Public relation aims to control the perception of an entity by managing its media representation. Often this involves creating a story about the entity where none had existed before (Tynan 2008: 127 & 131). Raymond (2005) suggests PR can be helpful to journalists, in the way it provides accurate information about a topic. He says it is the journalist’s job to cut through the ‘spin’ that often surrounds press releases. However many releases often follow typical journalistic conventions such as inverted pyramid structure and use of direct quotes (Tynan 2008: 133). Miller cites the example of Greenpeace who release newsworthy footage to the media with accompanying commentary (2002: 80). Another example is Medianet , set up by the Australian Associated Press , it merges news content with media releases which is then provided to journalists (Miller 2000: 37). So though journalists must attempt to strive for independence from their sources, the increasing lack of resources means they must rely more and more on public relations content which is structured to subsidise the news (ibid.). In 1994 Zawawi found that 64 per cent of articles in The Australian stemmed from press releases, similar percentages were found in the Gold Coast Bulletin and The Sydney Morning Herald (ibid: 43).

The rise of public relations can be linked with political economy theory. The so called complacency of the news media means that politicians can now use PR to dictate the news agenda (Cockerell et al. 1985). Eldridge et al. consider party leaders and policies to be products which must be sold (1994: 113). They suggest that the great amounts of money spent by the Thatcher government in the 1980s on advertising and public relations was used to sell the neoliberal policy of privatisation to the UK public (ibid: 114). Most politicians now have a great number of media advisors who attempt to subsidise the news by producing their own. Das cites this quote from Lloyd which sums up the problem appropriately, ‘we have created a system in which both parties (politicians and media) collaborate in producing media-ised politics. The problem is that the media continue to report politics as if they were a neutral, almost invisible observer’ (2005).

Through the information given in this essay it should be clear that journalists and other media workers must take into account many influences when producing the news. These influences have led to the news becoming something else entirely different to what is expected. News is not a matter of gathering and combining information in an objective way. Media organisations do not act as impartial gatekeepers. Rather news is produced by powerful entities to set the agenda for public knowledge and to earn money. Journalists are socialised into producing news based on the ideologies of the organisation they work for. These organisations are in turn influenced by the established order and are at mercy to those who pay for their news production. The news is fast becoming a medium for the powerful to push their agendas onto the public as the media has become overwhelmed by the proliferation of public relations campaigns. For now the news does not represent a clear reality but in fact produces its own.

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