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Journalistic Tendencies: A history of journalism in 1975-1999

Updated on October 21, 2012


"News" in this period of United States history meant the same to American citizens as it had centuries before in terms of value, despite changes in the production of news that came with emerging technologies and methods. Journalism allowed for the average person to understand the workings of the government and everyday events that could affect their lives and the decisions they would make. Society utilized news as a tool for obtaining knowledge and creating opinion. A 1997 study conducted by the Newspaper Association of America found that people rely heavily on local papers for news about their local community, government, political views, and how to help the community with problems.

However, the news itself was changing during this time, revealing more, breaking the mold of the old newsroom, and incorporating more business in its business. Before the days of celebrity newscasters and the groundbreaking advent television news, journalism was completely at the mercy of news practitioners. Tom Bettag, former executive producer of ABC News's "Nightline," recalled being told by "old pros" in the "old school" of journalism, "News is what I say it is... They spoke as members of the journalism profession, which was to them almost the priesthood. They spoke as people who took pride in their training and experience, their discipline and professional ethics. They talked about journalism as public service. They even used the phrase ‘a sacred trust.'"

The commercial leanings of mass media and air of arrogance and superiority imparted by journalists as a result of increased fame led to a decrease in credibility in the 1980's and 1990's. A study called "Newspaper Credibility: Building Reader Trust" conducted by Minneapolis-based MORI Research, Inc. found in 1985 that three-fourths of adults had a problem with media credibility and one-sixth were frustrated with news media. The Times Mirror Corporation conducted a survey called "The People & the Press" that found people said 45 percent of papers were politically biased and 34 percent were inaccurate. In 1993 the Times Mirror reported that 42 percent of those surveyed had "quite a bit" or "a great deal" of confidence in newspapers; 88 percent said the news media did a "very good or fairly good" job.

The spotlight turned on journalists, particularly broadcast newscasters, illuminated the moral responsibilities to report fairly and accurately and created discomfort and consciousness. Bettag said that at this time, "It wasn't long before every network had a "research" department." News consultants gathered focus groups of everyday citizens inquired as to what they wanted to see on daily newscasts and then established guidelines for newsrooms. "In all too many places that move took much of the decision-making off the shoulders of the news staff. Soon every local station had health news, consumer news, happy news, pet stories. News is what people say they want to know about."

The capabilities and inquiring nature of the American public also encouraged journalists to focus more on the credibility of news. No longer was journalism represented by idolized newscasters like Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters seen as superior entities on a television screen. With the introduction of the Internet in the 1990's, journalism in general was rendered less aloof and transcendent and become tangible and even achievable at one's own hands. Citizen journalism allowed people to generate their own news and define it on their own terms.

The functions of journalism at this time

One of the greatest functions of the news in the latter quarter of the century was its role as the "watchdog" of the government and other powerful bodies in the United States. While some believe American journalists were slow to fully understand the Vietnam War in its effects and meaning, many consider them responsible for bringing the predicament to light at home. U.S. journalists revealed that the Reagan administration had been secretly selling arms to Iran in exchange for hostages; outrage subsequently spread across the nation. Coverage of the Gulf War kept Americans continually up-to-date as to the most recent events in Iraq.

The airing of presidential campaign debates and press conferences live and direct allowed American citizens to make up their own minds about issues and political figures. Part of what led to President Ronald Reagan's unpopularity was his low number of press conferences compared to other presidents, in addition to his avoidance of reporters. President Jimmy Carter used press conferences to increase support for his programs, holding as many as possible in attempt to be open to the press.

Constant media coverage has the ability to improve the popularity of governmental figures as well as damage their reputations. During troop build-up of the Gulf War in 1990, President George Bush, Sr. received a 78 percent approval rating by public opinion polls. By the end of the war, with troops in northern Iraq and large debts on the record, his ratings fell dramatically. Calls for the resignation of President Bill Clinton erupted after an investigation revealed his affair with 21-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Reporting of events, particularly in the ways of extent and repetition, influenced society considerably. Focus in the news on the Nicaraguan revolution and governmental and domestic issues in El Salvador resulted in a social separation of American citizens into the "left" (church leaders, workers, and dissenting intellectuals) swayed by Marxism, and the "right" (wealthy landowners, the military, and corporate managers). Also, nearly excessive and arguably sensationalistic coverage of the death of Princess Diana, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and cases such as that of O.J. Simpson fed the public's desire for gossip and entertainment. As CBS anchor Dan Rather said, "We've all gone Hollywood-we've all succumbed to the Hollywoodization of the news-because we were afraid not to. We trivialize important subjects... And just to cover our asses, we give the best slots to gossip and prurience."

Journalism did affect American society in more beneficial ways at this time in history. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967 complained that communications media reported little on the black community and included too few black reporters and race experts and inspired changes in the newsroom. The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) reported in 1994 that about 10.9 percent of 60,000 U.S. journalists were minorities. Smaller papers remained homogenous.

The number of women in the newsroom showed little increase since the feminist movement earlier in the century. Women ran fewer than 7 percent of dailies, though 30 to 40 percent of staffs were female (22 percent in the over-50 group) as were 60 percent of journalism students. Pay averaged 81 percent that of male colleagues. A 1997 study by ASNE showed that in areas such as job satisfaction and evaluations of managers, both sexes responded similarly. However, sexual harassment cases and equality in decision making made fairness complicated.

The media also challenged the notions of obscenity and pornography in America. The Communications Decency Act attempted to criminalize the knowing transmission of sexual material to anyone less than 18 years of age, though the Supreme Court overturned that portion of the act. Since then other version of a bill have been in the works intending to protect children from sexual materials online.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, an amendment of the Communications Act of 1934, was passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress and was considered advantageous to consumers in its ability to foster competition and provide choices. The act also removed ownership restrictions on radio and televisions stations, allowing one entity to own any amount of television stations so long as the audience remained under 35 percent. Locally an entity could own any number of radio stations based on market size. Cross-media ownership was relaxed as well. Such deregulation and convergence became a trend at the end of the 20th century, leading to further concentration of media ownership and media conglomerates.

The media itself experienced considerable growth as an industry as well. Mergers exploded into view from 1980-1990, with a couple including the $14 billion merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications, the General Electric company with RCA Corporation and its National Broadcasting Company for $6.3 billion. Competition for advertising rose as well, with about $129 billion in total expenditures for advertising in the United States in 1990 alone (60 percent to mass media). Billions of dollars were invested in radio, movies, magazines, and books as well. Larry Tisch, CEO of the Loews Corporation, said of its newly purchased enterprise, "CBS News spends hundreds of millions of dollars. I can't believe the people who run broadcasts and bureaus aren't businessmen."

Public relations rose as a profession at this time; nearly 150,000 practitioners worked in public relations and related areas in America. There were 1500 public relations firms and 80 percent of large companies were involved in public relations activity. The area of journalism worked in the favor of companies nationwide; for instance, in 1982 effectual public relations helped save the Johnson & Johnson Corporation following after the highly publicized Tylenol poisoning crisis.


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