After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- What is news?
- What is objectivity?
- How do journalists acquire the news?
- How is the news presented?
- How do people in public life try to influence their depictions by and in the media?
- What are three common ways journalists cover people in public life?
Information about or relevant to politics, government, and public policies commonly appears in the mass media in the form of news. News is a selective account of what happens in the world. Common subjects are violence (wars), crime (school shootings), natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes), and scandals (sexual, financial). The statements and actions of powerful or prominent people are news. So are human interest stories, such as the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch.
News is timely, a breaking event, like an assassination attempt on a president. Or newly revealed information, such as a presidential candidate’s drunk-driving conviction, even if it happened years ago. Slow-moving processes that may be of vital importance (e.g., the spread of AIDS or global warming) take time to become news, often requiring a “peg”—the release of an alarmist study, a congressional hearing, or presidential speech—on which to hang the story.
News is reported by journalists. They work under time pressure with tight deadlines to come up with stories around the clock. This job has become more difficult in recent years as budget cuts have led news organizations to demand more stories for more outlets from fewer reporters.
A majority of journalists are white, middle class, middle-aged, and male. Women now compose about one-third of the press corps and racial minorities around one-tenth. In a survey, 36 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 33 percent as Independents, and 18 percent as Republicans. Reporters tend to be pro-choice, for gay rights, and in favor of protecting the environment. But they try to refrain from showing their preferences in their stories.
Any influence of reporters’ characteristics and opinions on their stories is limited by the norms of objectivity they learn in journalism school or on the job. Specified in the profession’s code of ethics, these include reporting accurate information, not deliberately distorting or plagiarizing, and separating reporting from advocacy (Society of Professional Journalists, 1996). Journalists are expected to report different sides of an issue, be impartial and fair, and exclude their personal opinions (Mindich, 1998).
If they are found out, journalists who deliberately and blatantly violate the profession’s ethics are punished. New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was dismissed after it was discovered that he had fabricated or plagiarized around forty of the six hundred articles he had written for the paper; editors resigned in the wake of the discoveries. Jack Kelly was the star foreign correspondent for USA Today and had worked for the paper for over twenty years when he resigned in January 2004, accused of plagiarism and of inventing parts or all of some of his stories.
Depictions of Journalists
Many of our impressions of journalists, their behavior, importance, and trustworthiness come from the media. Media depictions repeat two types best captured in the classic film His Girl Friday: reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) and her editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant).
The first type exemplified by Hildy is the journalist as intrepid seeker after truth and crusader for justice. The most famous real-life equivalents are Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who helped uncover the Watergate scandal and wrote a book about it, All the President’s Men, which was turned into a popular Hollywood movie. Even some caustic satires of the news business contain versions of the journalist as noble loner. In Network, Peter Finch plays a television news anchor who begins to go insane on camera, shouting “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” In the movie, his pain and anguish are exploited by amoral network executives. In real life, his battle cry became the theme of citizens’ tax revolts in the late seventies and could be heard at Tea Party rallies thirty years later.
The second type of journalist, characterized by Walter Burns, is more common in the entertainment media. At their worst, as in Billy Wilder’s classic Ace in the Hole, such reporters cynically and callously exploit the disasters of the human condition. But even less bitter films show reporters as inevitably led astray from their devotion to the truth to the point that they destroy lives and reputations in their reckless search for an exclusive story ahead of other reporters (a scoop) that is dramatic and shocking. In Absence of Malice, Sally Field plays a reporter who ends up besmirching a good man’s (Paul Newman) reputation. In Broadcast News, William Hurt and Albert Brooks compete to become a news anchor. Hurt—good-looking, smooth, unscrupulous, and none too bright—wins out over the dumpier, knowledgeable, and dedicated Brooks.
A contemporary example of the second type is Rita Skeeter. Introduced by J. K. Rowling in her vastly popular Harry Potter series, Skeeter writes for the Daily Prophet, Witch Weekly, and other publications. She is untrustworthy, unscrupulous, vindictive, and vile. She justifies her behavior with the motto “Our readers have a right to the truth.” But her news stories are error-strewn and full of lies. They destroy friendships, inflict pain and suffering, and deprive decent people of their jobs. Rita Skeeter gets scoops by turning herself into a bug. The moral is that such journalists are nasty bugs (Rowling, 2000).
Acquiring the News
Journalists follow standard procedures to obtain the news. They go to the scene, especially of wars and disasters. They talk to people who have participated in, witnessed, or claim to know what happened. They dig into records. Easing their job, many events, such as press conferences, trials, and elections, are scheduled ahead of time.
News organizations guarantee stories by assigning reporters to cover distinct beats such as the White House or specific subjects such as environmental policy. Institutions and subjects not on reporters’ beats (off the beaten track, so to speak) generate few stories unless they do something to become newsworthy. Sometimes events thrust them into prominence, as when the banking crisis of 2008 raised questions about the regulatory effectiveness of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Journalists interact with and rely extensively on sources—generally people in government and politics, especially those in high positions of authority—to provide them with scoops and quotations. Other sources are whistle-blowers, who reveal information they have about dubious activities, outrages, or scandals. Depending on their motives, sources either provide information openly and unreservedly or leak it subject to various conditions such as anonymity (Hess, 1984).
Often the reporter-source relationship is symbiotic: they need each other. Reporters need sources for news. Sources need reporters to get their views and information into the news, to obtain favorable coverage.
Sometimes the relationship is adversarial, with reporters pressing a reluctant source for information. Sources must often respond to reporters’ ideas of what is news. Information from one beat may inspire a news story that another beat wants to keep quiet. Refusal to reveal information may result in negative coverage and in sources becoming targets in reporters’ and columnists’ stories.
Legislative committees, regulatory agencies, and governmental departments and commissions conduct investigations, hold hearings, and issue reports and press releases. Journalists sometimes draw on these sources for their stories. Typical is a New York Times’s front page story headlined “Terror Suspects Buying Firearms, Report Finds” (in the United States), based on an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (Lichtblau, 2005).
Some journalists specialize in investigative reporting, pursuing information that may involve legal or ethical wrongdoing and that is likely to be concealed (Ettema & Glasser, 1998). This reporting requires detailed and thorough digging into a story. It is often time consuming and expensive. The New York Times, Washington Post, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jones are some of the publications that still engage in it, as do the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, which in November 2010 absorbed the Huffington Post’s “Investigative Fund,” Pro-Publica, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Examples of award-winning investigative stories include exposure of secret Central Intelligence Agency prisons in Eastern Europe, the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US forces, appalling care in veterans’ hospitals, and job-related deaths of Mexican workers in the United States.
The mass media rely on the wire services for much of their international and national news. Wire services cover and transmit stories worldwide from their own staff and from reporters who work for the many newspapers and other organizations that belong to the services. Prominent wire services are the Associated Press (AP) and Reuters. The AP sends news to approximately 1,700 newspapers, 5,000 radio and television stations, and 8,500 other media outlets in over 100 countries.
Video feeds supplied by the AP and Reuters are the source of much of the televised international news. Subscribers are sent video accompanied by natural sound without narration and brief printed informational scripts. Four of CBS’s eight foreign correspondents are based in London doing voice-overs for these feeds for broadcast on the network’s news programs.
Prominence and Presentation
As a result of widely agreed-upon criteria of newsworthiness, the process of gathering the news, and the use of news services, the news media often report many of the same stories. Only a few stories are featured prominently due to limitations in broadcast prime time and front-page print space.
Nonetheless, there are some differences among the media in the range and type of news on which they focus. For example, the New York Times, with its stable of reporters in Washington, DC, and foreign correspondents, emphasizes government and politics in the United States and abroad. Cable news channels focus more on crimes and celebrities. Aside from a few stories, such as the war in Iraq and natural disasters, they give short shrift to foreign stories. In fact, the Fox News Channel has a segment titled “Around the World in 80 Seconds.”
The media also differ stylistically in how they present the news. The Times does it with relative sobriety. Cable channels dramatize their reports by announcing “breaking news,” using graphic captions, accompanying stories with pulsating music, engaging in fast-paced editing, and repeatedly admonishing viewers to “stay with us.”
Television news is picture driven: stories with appealing, dramatic, or even available camera footage are more likely to be played prominently than those without. Viewers are unaware of what is not shown, what happened before or after the picture was taken, and whether or not the shot was staged. Camera angles, distance from the subject, especially close-ups, length of shot, camera movement, and editing all influence viewers’ impressions. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it can also mislead, as Note 1.17 “Enduring Image” reveals.
The Overthrow of Saddam Hussein
The toppling of a dictator’s statue is an enduring image, symbolizing the literal collapse of a regime’s authority and the massive uprising and joy of a population freed at last from tyranny. On April 9, 2003, a US mechanized vehicle using a cable pulled down Saddam Hussein’s mammoth statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. The square was sealed off by US marines. The few people in it were US soldiers, Iraqis from the United States, promoted “Free Iraqi Forces Militia” (comprising exiles who had recently been returned to the country by the Pentagon), and journalists.
On television the statue falls, the crowd cheers. On the front pages of newspapers in the United States and around the world, the Reuters news-agency photograph shows the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue under the watchful eye of an American soldier. The images symbolize the US defeat of the dictator and his regime and the Iraqi people celebrating their newfound freedom. Wider shots of the square, revealing that only a handful of people were in the plaza, were far less common.
News Reporting propaganda Baghdad Saddam Statue
The first photograph of the statue being pulled down reflects news values of vividness, drama, and conflict. It spectacularly hearkens back to the removal of statues of Lenin and Stalin after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union. The alternative photos, showing much more of the relatively empty square, lacked dramatic news values and thus their symbolic effects.
Because the news media found the dramatic image to be irresistible, they reinforced a frame, pushed by the Bush administration, of a jubilant Iraqi population welcoming its liberators. But the meaning of an image can change. Now, for many people, the falling statue represents the illusion of a US military success that turned into a quagmire of frustration.
Interactions and Types of Coverage
As we document throughout our book, people involved in public life understand that their election and reelection, their effectiveness in elected and appointed office, and their ability to achieve their policies often depend on how they and their deliberations and debates, disagreements and conflicts, cooperation and consensus, actions and inactions, and struggles for power, are portrayed by the media. They know that media depictions can influence people’s opinions, understandings of policy problems and notions of solutions, and can encourage or discourage participation in politics.
They know that information is power. The more of it they have before others the better. They have aides who gather, synthesize, and summarize the news from newspapers and television, from talk shows, political publications (Roll Call and The Hill), polls, websites, and blogs (Parker, 2011). So they and their staff interact with media personnel to try to manage and manipulate the news and influence journalists’ selection of stories and how they are framed. They present (spin) their behavior, activities, and actions, and policies and decisions, as positively as possible; they conceal, minimize, or put the best gloss on their mistakes and blunders.
They engage in public appearances, make speeches, hold press conferences, and stage newsworthy events. They also deploy an arsenal of savvy techniques such as brief, pithy phrases known as sound bites. Behind the scenes they bestow favors, such as giving access to sympathetic journalists; persuade; apply pressure; and engage in intimidation (Cook, 2005; Paletz, 2012).
Despite these attempts at manipulation, the news media’s coverage of people in public life is not necessarily favorable. Three common types of coverage are lap-dog, watch-dog, and attack-dog journalism.
Journalists usually rely on policymakers as knowledgeable and convenient sources of information. Much news, therefore, consists of the debates about issues and policies among officials and politicians. Political scientist Lance Bennett and his colleagues call this indexing. The news media serve as lap dogs when the government’s perspective dominates. This can take place when leaders of the opposition party and other politicians do not continually criticize and challenge the government’s policies or do not articulate an alternative viewpoint to reporters to include in their stories (Bennett, 1996).
A notable example of the news media as lap dogs was their coverage of the Bush administration’s claims in 2002–2003 that Iraq must be attacked because it possessed weapons of mass destruction. Leaders of the Democratic Party did not forcefully challenge the White House’s official story, plans, and rationale. Most of the news media then transmitted the administration’s arguments without subjecting them to sustained analysis and criticism.
The news media are sometimes watchdogs, holding people in government and other powerful institutions accountable by scrutinizing and reporting their statements, activities, claimed accomplishments, and failures. This type of coverage can be provoked by dramatic events, such as Hurricane Katrina, to which the Bush administration responded unconvincingly. Journalists went to the scene, saw the devastation and havoc for themselves, and showed it directly to viewers. Outraged reporters asked so many impassioned questions of administration officials about their inadequate response to Katrina that the Salon website compiled a “Reporters Gone Wild” video clip (Bennett, Lawrence, & Livingston, 2007).
The news media can be attack dogs. President Richard M. Nixon observed, based on his many years in public life, that “for the press, progress is not news—trouble is news” (Safire, 1975). The news about government and politics is often negative, about blunders and disasters, scandals and corruption. This “gotcha” journalism can provoke a feeding frenzy in which reporters, like a pack of dogs, search for, uncover, and chew over every morsel of the story (Sabato, 1991). News coverage of President Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky exemplified such a feeding frenzy.
In this section, we have explained how journalists decide what is news, how they acquire news (through beats, sources, investigative reporting, and other ways), and how they present news. We have described the techniques that people in public life use to manage and manipulate the news media to obtain positive and avoid negative depictions. And we have specified three ways that the news media can behave toward people in government and politics: as lap dogs, watchdogs, or attack dogs.
- What makes something news? How do journalists decide what to report as news?
- Why was the close-up photograph of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down so much more widely used in the media than the wide-angle shot? How does the need to tell an interesting story affect how the news gets reported?
- What factors determine how journalists cover politics? When is their coverage of politicians more likely to be favorable, and when is it more likely to be critical?
Bennett, W. L., “An Introduction to Journalism Norms and Representations of Politics,” Political Communication 13, no. 4 (October–December 1996): 373–84.
Bennett, W. L., Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston, When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) for a thoughtful analysis of when and why the news media are lap dogs and watchdogs (the “Gone Wild” example is on p. 167).
Cook, T. E., Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Ettema, J. S. and Theodore L. Glasser, Custodians of Conscience: Investigative Journalism and Public Virtue (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
Hess, S., The Government/Press Connection: Press Officers and Their Offices (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1984), chap. 7.
Lichtblau, E., “Terror Suspects Buying Firearms, Report Finds,” New York Times, March 8, 2005, A1.
Mindich, D. T. Z., Just the Facts: How “Objectivity” Came to Define American Journalism (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
Paletz, D. L., The Media in American Politics: Contents and Consequences, 3rd ed. (New York: Longman, 2012).
Parker, A., “Where News Is Power, a Fight to Be Well-Armed,” New York Times, January 18, 2011, A14, 17.
Rowling, J. K., Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (New York: Scholastic Press, 2000), especially 433–53, 511–15, 611–15, and 726–28; the quotation is on p. 450.
Sabato, L. J., Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics (New York: Free Press, 1991).
Safire, W., “The Press is the Enemy: Nixon and the Media,” New York, January 27, 1975, 44.
Society of Professional Journalists, Code of Ethics, adopted September 1996.
- For journalists’ backgrounds, see David H. Weaver, Randal A. Beam, Bonnie J. Brownlee, Paul S. Voakes, and G. Cleveland Wilhoit, The American Journalist in the 21st Century (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007), 20. ↵
- For a study of movie depictions of American journalism, see Matthew C. Ehrlich, Journalism in the Movies (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004). ↵
- The differences between the photographs was brought to our attention in the May/June 2003 issue of Extra!, p. 8. ↵