The Nature of News

[The following is one of three short literature reviews I wrote this semester [EDIT: This is from April 2006] for a graduate level Mass Communications Theory class. The citation style is specific to the class, but you can find relevant links at the end of the essay. Feedback is welcome.]
While Lippmann (1922) explores the newsman’s challenge of translating “Truth” into news fit for print, McDonald (1971) questions whether the journalistic convention of objectivity helps or hinders in the process. Epstein (1974) and Roshco (1975) discuss how sources can manipulate the rhythms of the news cycle, imposing tight limits on the quantity and quality of the truths that make the leap from reality to newsprint or airwaves. Boorstin (1971) details the social logic behind the self-propagating spectacle of what Boorstin calls “pseudo-events.”

Lippmann saw the news media as a searchlight scanning the landscape, its beam too narrow to put what it shines on into context. The interpreters of events, the span of their searchlight limited by time, space, and convention, use stereotypes to fill in the gaps. Like mythic archetypes woven into the structure of storytelling, these stereotypes are intended to be broadly comprehended. These should be the lowest common denominators that hold a society together. Unfortunately, these shortcuts tend to reinforce the status quo. By performing this function, the news media is unintentionally proving Klapper’s 1960 limited effects hypothesis.

Journalists sometimes use objectivity as a barometer to prove their lack of bias. McDonald calls objectivity “an essential correspondence between knowledge of a thing and the thing itself,” although in most newsrooms this translates to “get both sides of the story.” The Associated Press bears a great deal of responsibility for the journalistic application of objectivity. Before the AP started using the telegraph to transmit stories, publishers practiced personal journalism — each newspaper espoused the principles of its publisher, and the reader was left to choose the newspaper whose politics best suited his own. The advent of the AP wire brought about the need appeal to every reader in every story. Rather than write six stories about a given subject to include all six opinions about it, an AP writer would find a source to furnish each point of view, playing them against each other, allowing the reader to find their own viewpoint somewhere in each story.

Epstein and Roshco detail the flaws in the rhythms and bureaucracy of the news business. Sources are self-interested, making the reporting of complicated socioeconomic issues into a Rashomon-like game of “he said, she said,” in which the participants each try to spin a data in their preferred direction. The “objective” reporter is left to draw the quotation marks and maintain his distance, although interpretative journalism remains an option for some news organizations.

The news media’s need to consult “expert” opinions or quote “official” pronouncements allows the powerful people in society to manipulate the news through leaks and “pseudo-events” staged for the purpose of being recorded. Boorstin claims that reporters play a leading role in this act, “making” news by asking controversial questions of political figures, digging for human interest in unremarkable events, or making predictions on their topic of choice. Boorstin does not give the news media enough credit for attempting to tell stories that add context to the political and social spectrum. Boorstin is correct, however, when he points out the media’s role in the process of creating a synthetic layer of “news” can blind the public to the reality of a given situation.

This layer of spectacle hangs over the globe like a ragged shroud, exposing patches of truth almost by chance. When reporters let sources take advantage of journalistic conventions to dictate the content of the news, they are not playing the role of Lippmann’s inadequate searchlight; they are dancing between the light of truth and the shadows on the wall in Plato’s cave. That is simply not enough when it comes to performing the imperative task of informing the public in a democracy. Robert E. Park wrote in his 1923 “Natural History of the Newspaper” that “the newspaper must continue to be the printed diary of the home community.” Without principles and conventions that let news organizations control the content of the news in the public interest, the content of our newspapers will continue to be determined by those who control access to the official version of events.

Loose References

  • Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion from 1922
  • Donald McDonald’s 1978 essayIs Objectivity Possible?” and Edward Jay Epstein’s “Journalism and Truth” can both be found here.
  • Bernard Roshco’s 1975 work “Press releases and Pulitzer Prizes” is in his book titled Newsmaking
  • Daniel J. Boorstin’s bits on pseudo-events are in this book, edited by Schramm and Roberts.

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