Who Determines the Nature of News? A Look at the Close Relationship Between Sources and the Mass Media

By Sirikit Syah

Introduction

This paper begins with an essay question, ‘Is the nature of news determined more by the organizations in which journalists work or by the sources upon whom journalists rely?’ It is not easy to answer this seemingly simple question. Some people say journalists are very much controlled by the organizations they work for/at. But some others may argue that it is the sources that mostly influence what the journalists report and how they report it. In fact, the relationship between sources and journalists resembles a dance, for sources seek access to journalists, and journalists seek access to sources. Although it takes two to tango, either sources or journalists can lead, but more often than not, sources do the leading.

As persons, journalists also have cultural, religious, and/or political backgrounds that may shape their views and perceptions towards social affairs, which eventually influence their reports. Another theory points out to the ‘market-driven’ selection of news, meaning that the public determines what news is. So, at least there are three parties presumably involved with the determination of news; journalists, sources, media organizations. Influence by advertisers is also imminent, as Michael Parenti writes in his book Inventing Reality (will be discussed later).

It is, therefore, very interesting to have a thorough look at what actually news is, who determines them, and how the process of determination is. Golding and Elliot call news a ‘cultural package’, which reflects more the forces that produce it than of the events and processes in social reality it claims to portray. Furthermore, they assume that people tend to forget how limited and oblique a view of the world around us is provided by news.

This paper would not pretend to answer all the questions perfectly, but rather to explain the roles of the significant parties mentioned above, and try to present any link existing between them. First of all this paper would present the nature of news as consumed by citizens. After that, it would discuss the kinds of sources, in this case focusing on governments and other political powers, and their roles in determining what news to be presented to consumers. The other influencing factors of news nature; the news organizations (media owners), advertisers, and other society groups, would also be discussed.

News That We Consume

As we could see and experience in daily life, and also learn from academic research, the news that we consume are mostly, if not usually, the types of information that comes from elite groups, information that involves big names, catastrophes with a great number of casualties, or conflicts, just any kind of conflict, because conflict does make news. The importance of conflict to be considered in would-be news is emphasized by David L. Paletz and Robert M. Entman: “An event is particularly newsworthy if it has some elements of a dramatic narrative –a central conflict or dilemma to draw the audience; protagonists whose actions affect or reflect the lives of the audience; and the possibility of catharsis at the reported outcome.”

Conflict, or chaos, is the most favorable for newspaper editors or TV producers, and this includes –even especially- blood-contained news story. A usual run down of a TV news bulletin, for instance, will start with a conflict concerning big names, or a tragedy with a number of casualties. In the US, they have a term for this nature of selecting news items for a TV news bulletin, ‘if it bleeds it leads’, meaning stories with blood will certainly be chosen to open the news bulletin. This style is imitated in many other parts of the world including Indonesia. Some newly established private televisions (after the dominance of state TV) broadcast news programs, in which the opening stories are usually reports of crimes and accidents bearing bodies and blood at the location. Feel-good news such as an achievement, a development, a progress, may be included during the 30 minutes program, but they are undoubtedly put at the last segment. Matthew R. Kerbel explains about this blood-thirst habit of news producers:

There was no violence at this school. There were no fatalities or injuries. This situation is what professionals call a slow news day. That’s television talk for no one was bleeding. Which means it’s time to make something out of nothing.

So, it is not surprising if a blood-contained news event will beat other important stories such as scientific invention or policy reform, in taking the ‘lead’ (an opening of a 30 minutes or one hour news bulletin).

Alastair Hetherington, a newspaperman, who also had experience in broadcast journalism, describes drama, surprise, personalities, sex, and numbers, among his top list criteria for news. And for television news, there must be an extra factor: pictures, or visual attractiveness. Although not essential, colorful or active pictures bring extra points to an item, promoting it in television news priorities. And what is more colorful than blood or fire? In relation to the ‘picture’ factor in TV journalism, a number of journalists, who like doing investigative reporting, quit television profession because their significant reports cannot be aired simply because they are lack of attractive pictures.

Leave a TV screen for a moment and take a look at the front pages of daily newspapers and tabloids. The headlines and banners are similar to the leads of TV bulletins. The most unpleasant and negative news could be expected presented at this precious space: the front page, while less negative or rather positive information would be put inside or at the back page of the newspapers. Galtung and Ruge put ‘negativity’ among 12 criteria of newsworthy, which are likely to be reported in news media. Among other things, it is because negative news satisfies the frequency criterion and it is more consensual and unambiguous in terms of interpretation of the event as negative.

Consuming this kind of information on daily basis, people (as media consumers) cannot help feeling or believing that the world they are living in is dangerous, threatening, unpromising, uncomfortable. Why mass media would serve that to its public? Apart from influences from many different parties, news is also products of limited capacity, in terms of access, distance, technology, and cost. Like other organizations, news organizations also have finite resources. This has enormous consequences for their ability to carry out their work adequately. It determines not only how many journalists are employed but also where those journalists are placed and what news material is collected.

That explains why in a country where technology is a luxury like Indonesia, a crash involving a fewer number of casualties in faraway country is presented in the news while a crash involving a greater number of casualties in a remote region in the country will take two days before it hits the news. News organizations are unable or reluctant to spend a lot more money in sending news crew to the remote region, and take CNN or Reuter piece of the crashing news from abroad –which is inexpensive- instead. Realized or not, news organizations allow –even endorse- foreign media in flooding citizens with news unrelated and irrelevant to their needs.

Apart from conflicting or chaotic stories, news media also like to report on political issues, especially those coming from elite sources. More often than not, citizens are fed with issues or statements by government officials and/or politicians, which do not reflect their aspirations. The political economy of the mass media leads them to consider the most practical and economical way of getting material for news. Governments and politicians are undoubtedly the dominant sources in the news media because of that reason.

News Sources

There are various kinds of news sources that provide information to journalists, or sought after by journalists to give information. The most common is the ‘beat sources’, the sources at certain institutions that produce or provide information on regular basis to journalists. They can be government officials, corporate owners or their PR persons, celebrity agents or managers, or politicians addicted to publicity. Among them, government officials and politicians are at the top list of every news organization. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky suggest the economic reason of it, that this is a matter of cost. Taking information from sources that may be presumed credible reduces investigative expense, whereas material from sources that are not prima facie credible, or that will elicit criticism and threats, requires careful checking and costly research. In short, the media choice of using this kind of bureaucracies is not necessarily based on the value (the importance or urgency) of the information, but more on the guaranteed schedule flow of information and the credibility of legitimate status of the sources.

Politicians and government officials are two of the most influential news sources for the news media. Besides their availability for access, their continuing flow of information, and their relatively non-budget kind of stories, whatever they say is also guaranteed to be as public interest. Because of their unique position in the society, politicians have many privileges with the operation of the media. They do not only answer journalists’ question based on the public interests, but also –and more often than not- impose certain issues to be publicized, dictate what issue is more important than the others. They would even ‘pay’ to get their stories printed or aired. As H. Gans clearly mentions, ‘Their successful access to journalists is shaped by at least four interrelated factors: incentives, power, ability to supply suitable information, geographic and social proximity to the journalists.’

The power of this kind of sources is usually unrealized by media consumers. They mostly believe that the media has the intelligence and wisdom to choose for them the news they supposedly need to consume. Even, the media practitioners are seldom aware that they are under strong influence of these sources. These sources do not only dictate what is news but also what is not news, and they exercise their power by refusing access and concealing information. Gans considers this as ‘the primary form of censorship’.

Many journalists work for so many years in a certain place/field, so they get very close with their long time sources. Called as ‘beat reporters’, they are believed to know best about whatever happening or any kind of issue in their field. Giving assignment to beat-reporter to uncover a certain scandal, therefore, might be good because they have all the backgrounds and the access to sources. This, however, proves to be wrong, because beat-reporters may be unwilling or reluctant to disclose any information that may endanger their loyal sources. Unsurprisingly, then, that the Watergate scandal concerning the president of the United States of America was uncovered by two non-White House reporters, who had hardly entered the White House before and during their investigation.

The intimacy between sources and journalists are evidence in the capital city of the most powerful country in the world. Steve Isaacs, former editor of the Minneapolis Star, said, “If you send a reporter to Washington, that reporter tends to be co-opted by the elitist values there.” Art Shields in My Shaping Years (1982) criticizes top journalists as ‘often socializing with people they’re supposed to be scrutinizing’. Of course there is nothing wrong with socializing, but the professions of journalists and politicians or government leaders are very vulnerable to be abused by what seem to be a mere relationship.

If the sources are more powerful than the media organization or the journalists, the tendency that the sources will dictate what to be published is clear. The White House, being very powerful and having moral obligation to feed journalists with news on daily basis because their fluent flow of information is among the top to be counted on, will certainly do that: feeding the journalists. As one participant of a White House meeting put it, a senior staff would start the day with: “What do we want the press to cover today and how?” Take notice, it is not ‘what information do they really have’ to disseminate to citizens, but ‘what they like to disseminate’. This is near propaganda.

The notion of government leaders and politicians in distributing propaganda more than necessary information for the public is clear with the recent media coverage of the US war in Afghanistan. CNN, among other ‘patriotic’ US media, following the country’s propaganda, put headlines with banners saying ‘Attack on America’ or ‘War Against Terrorism’, when in fact, the bombings in Afghanistan can have a different banner such as ‘Attack on Afghanistan’. The US and the UK governments also disapproved the broadcasting of Al-Jazeera’s material on ‘Oshama Bin Laden’s speech’. They tried to stop news directors from airing that material, which act was actually against the philosophy of freedom of the press that they had always promoted.

These days Pentagon and the White House are under accusation of producing lies and manipulating information. But ten years ago, Michael Parenti had already exposed how the Pentagon and CIA worked on the media. Pentagon produces hundreds of stories every week that are picked up by newspapers and broadcast stations across the country. Government teams of propagandists in Washington do the same, sending their products abroad through the mechanism of USIS (United States Information Service). One of the most active news-manipulating agencies is the CIA, which turns journalists into agents and CIA agents into ‘journalists’. CIA has some 400-600 journalists in the pay, and it runs the biggest news service in the world with a budget larger than those all the major wire service put together.

The Invisible Hands

Politicians and government leaders are not the only group who has significant influence to the determination of news. The internal influence is as huge. When they go back from interviewing or from a press briefing, journalists still have to deal with editors and perhaps sub-editors before their stories go on air or in print. Many journalists believe that they are independent and free to write report that they like and as they like. They must have been unaware that they can only repot what they like as long as their editors and employers like it too. In a study of television news production in the USA, Epstein (1973, p.28) describes how

‘News executives decide on the deployment of correspondents and camera crews; assignment editors select what stories will be covered and by whom; field producer, in constant phone contacts with the producers in New York, usually supervise the preparation of filming stories … editors ….. reconstruct the story on film ….’

Journalists have several editors or/and sub editors as one of their many filters, and above all them, the chief editors or the news directors and the employer/owner. An NBC president, for instance, once stopped the airing of Basra report, when the report was not in accordance with the US government’s version.

Stronger influence comes from the employer or the owner of the news media. Rupert Murdoch, admits, “My editors have input, but I make final decisions.” Otis Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times says: “I am the chief executive. I set policy and I’m not going to surround myself with people who disagree with me.” The influence may be based on political views of the owners of news media, or simply based on ‘market-driven’ philosophy. Many tabloids are accused of ‘dumbing down’ citizens with their low quality journalism. But owners and workers defense themselves as ‘reaching out’ to a wider audience, meaning giving more political education to less privilege citizens. In fact, they reach out to more circulation and profit.
A less dominant role of owner –compared to Murdoch and Chandler- perhaps shown by Katherine Graham of the Washington Post. On Watergate coverage, which the paper stood alone for several months, she got pressures from the White House. But she joked later, “It was easier to deal with the President than to deal with people in the fifth floor (newsroom).” Her support for the seemingly insignificant story pursued by two non-White House reporters once again put the Post in the top list of credible journalism.

Besides the owners or the top executives in the organizations, journalists also face the influence of advertisers. The economy of the media rules that most news organizations are operated by advertising money. Because they pay the bills, these advertisers regard their influence over media content is something of a ‘right’. There are many examples of this. Mobil Oil urged PBS to suppress a film that would offend its oil partner, Saudi Arabia. Chomsky and Herman call these advertisers ‘patrons’, who provide the media subsidy.

Phillip Meyer had an interesting story about the power of advertiser. He had an argument with a car dealer over who was going to pay for the documents on the transaction. At some point the car dealer asked what his job was. Meyer, seeing a chance of winning the argument, proudly revealed his identity: a journalist of Miami Herald. Instead of having a go on the argument, Meyer was struck by his dealer’s reaction. “Oh boy, you’d better be careful. Do you know, how much we advertise at Herald each week?” The car dealer, on the position of advertiser, felt he could influence the content of the newspaper, and that could be the fact.

There are many other invisible hands, who play quite important roles in determining news. There are society pressure groups (NGOs, public leaders, political or religious groups, etc), who constantly influence the determination of news and how they are reported. The least of it might be the self-regulation inherent in the journalists or media practitioners themselves, due to past experience or other backgrounds. David T. Hill notices that every journalist in Indonesia would decide not to cover Miss SARA during the Soeharto’s New Order. This kind of self-censorship is one of invisible hands that decide what and what is not news to disseminate to citizens.

Conclusion

Journalists may have backgrounds, which might shape their interests. They also have relationship with sources and have the best knowledge of certain fields. However, from the discussion above it is clear that journalists have very little power in shaping or determining the nature of news. They cannot even go for a news gathering process without being assigned for, let alone have their stories broadcasted or published without being edited or rewritten. To put it in Gans’s words, journalists stand just below top levels of the hierarchies (economic, political, social, and cultural hierarchies called nation & society), even though their position affords them a better view of the top than either the bottom or middle.

Trends in national politics obviously have very big influence in the news media, as reflected in recent US war in Afghanistan, the crisis in the Middle East, the issue of Iraq, the debate on Gibraltar’s future, Northern Island, etc. The writer notices a difference between the UK journalists’ approach and the US journalists’ ones towards issues concerning their respective governments. While British journalists try to report objectively –to the extent of calling ‘British troops’ instead of ‘our trrops’, and express some criticism- their US counterparts seem to be more nationalistic and consenting with their government.. Gans (1980) suggests that one of eight journalistic values identified, especially among US journalists, is the ethnocentrism, manifested more in foreign news that is critical to local politics.

To conclude, there are levels of filters, which determine the nature of news. Herman and Chomsky (1994) present 4 filters, starting from the nature of media ownership (the size, the wealth, the profit orientation), advertisement, the sources among bureaucracies, the ‘flaks’ (criticism coming from society and pressure groups), and ‘anticommunism’ as national religion and control mechanism. The writer finds an extension of these filters, starting from the journalist’s social backgrounds and possibly ending in the policy or regulation of the media. Different policy and regulation of the media proves to provide different content of news, as shown in Indonesian experience. In the middle, however, the writer agrees with other scholars that news making is a complex process, and the nature is determined by various elements in the society. To answer the question whether news organization or the sources give the stronger influence in news determination, the writer would go back to a proverb ‘it takes two to tango’.

End of Essay
May 2002

Bibliography:

Cohen, Stanley, and Jack Young, The Manufacture of News (Constable, 1973)
Gans, Herbert J., Deciding What’s News (Constable, 1980)
Golding, Peter, and Phillip Elliot, Making the News (Longman, 1979)
Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Vintage, 1994)
Hetherington, Alastair, News, Newspaper and Television (The MacMillan Press, 1985)
Hill, David T., The Press in New Order Indonesia (UWAP, 1994)
Kerbel, Matthew R., If It Bleeds, It Leads, An Anatomy of Television News (Westview Press, 2000)
Negrine, Ralph M., Politics and the Mass Media in Britain (Routledge, 1989)
Paletz, David L., and Robert M. Entman, Media Power Politics (The Free Press, 1981)
Palmer, Jerry, Spinning into Control (Leicester University Press, 2000)
Parenti, Michael, Inventing Reality, The Politics of News Media (St. Martin’s Press, 1993)
Schudson, Michael, The Power of News (Harvard University Press, 1995)

Perihal LKM Media Watch
Mass media are watchdogs. But who watch the media? Let's do it together. Watch this very powerful entity, for better journalism, better Indonesia, better world. http://www.sirikitsyah.wordpress.com

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