What makes news, newsworthy? Obviously, you learn in the Newswriting course at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication that what determines “newsworthiness” are seven values: impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, conflict, currency, human interest, and the bizarre. Journalists choose what to write based on whether the story has these values.
As students of journalism, we learn these values from the very beginning – underlying Timothy Cook’s argument in Governing the News that the news media is a political institution. The news media has “extended over space and time,” it has “presided over societal and/or political sectors,” and it has “unspoken procedures (like our values), routines, and assumptions of ways to act socially and politically. “ (Pg. 66-70)
I think he makes a very compelling argument to look at the media as the fourth branch of government.
But, in my opinion, this is not even the interesting part, even though it is the title of the book.
What I really enjoyed was the idea that complete objectivity, a journalistic norm and assumption, is not always what is best.
The rise of objectivity as an institutional norm began in the progressive era. People assumed, as we do today, that if citizens can’t easily get political information that is independent of politicians and government, democracy will suffer. Hence, when observers worry that the news has become too soft or that it’s political quotient is too low, they are usually worrying that the news is failing to provide citizens the public affairs information they need to perform their role as citizens.
In contrast, Cook argues that objectivity itself warrants bias. By focusing on these “values” that make news…news, journalists exclude other values that might be important to the American public. He states, “Reporters engage in explicit exclusion of values, by adhering to objectivity, disregarding the implications of their coverage, and by ignoring their own personal points of view” (Pg. 90).
Now, of course, most students of journalism also know Leo Rosten’s quote: “News in the last analysis is what newspapers choose to print.” Or, news media does not simply mirror the world.
Agenda setting, as described in Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw’s The Evolution of Agenda-Setting Research: Twenty-Five Years in the Marketplace of Ideas, is the ability of the news media to influence the topics covered in daily news. This is done through “media routines, organizational sociology, ideology and individual differences among journalists.”
Looking at this idea, while the organizations and the programs might be different, and the news itself might change daily, the values behind the institution remain the same. Thus, if we look at CNN, Fox News, and The Washington Post, almost every story on the front page today (March 26, 2015) is the same: The crashing of flight A320, Hillary Clinton’s supposed patronage by helping her brother, and Berghdal.
This is what the media deemed important to show today. And they all are important – but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question why it was chosen.
I always assumed that objectivity was a news value for the benefit of everyone, instead of viewing it as going hand in hand with agenda setting – an issue that can be seen in some ways as undercutting democracy. Does objectivity add to the problem of democratic disengagement instead of encouraging a solution?
John Zaller, author of A New Standard of News Quality: Burglar Alarms for the Monitorial Citizen, sees it in this light. He approaches the progressive era reforms I describe above in a different way: that they actually favored the elite. The anti-party reforms, including this more intellectual style of journalism, favored the class interests of the reformers more than the interests of ordinary Americans. The reformers tended to be the well-educated descendants of old American families. Thus, a growing number of college-trained journalists brought the press more firmly within that upper-class social group.
So when journalism really became a profession, the elites were telling the ordinary citizens what was important – a top-down approach.
Cook also discusses this by looking at the process of “negotiation of newsworthiness” – the idea of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.’ This pattern emerged between politicians and the media. He says, “With both sides controlling key resources, the negotiation is never one-sided” (Pg. 90).
It really is almost as if Big Brother or the Illuminati is determining what we talk about – all within the illusion that they are trying to promote democratic engagement through objectivity
That might be a bit of a conspiracy theory, so I digress.
What is interesting is whether or not there is a solution – a happy medium between outrage media and complete objectivity.
People have looked to long-form journalism, and I, like our class this week, believe it does have potential.
However, unlike our class this week, I think a solution can also be found in new media.
McCombs and Shaw also say in their research that in addition to the classical assertion that the news tells us what to think about, there is also the idea that the media also tells us how to think about it. They look at the news coverage of social movements and finds that the angle in which it is covered has a large impact on how we view the story. They state, “the news can document the scope of social problems, critique alternative proposals for coping with problems, or focus on the tactical efforts of activists and government officials to cope with problems.” Obviously, the latter frame makes for a better story, supporting, most obviously, the value of conflict.
Everyone is a journalist now – it is not just an elite and superbly educated group. And these new journalists, average people if we like to call them that, have the power to sometimes set the news agenda. So, arguably, this news doesn’t have to follow traditional values. Take the recent movements with hashtag activism.
Now this might be a bit of a stretch, but bear with me. We can look at the conflict surrounding Ferguson and see that the news media really only covered the protests and the response by officials. On Twitter and other social media sites, however, the hashtag and posts brought about stories of other instances of institutional racism – even things as small as being followed around a store by a manager. This doesn’t support the value of conflict and the traditional news media might have looked at these different angles on their own, but they definitely did after it was mentioned on new media.
Thus, new media has had the ability to set the agenda of the news, while not necessarily always being completely impartial.
In this blog, I do not really bring to the table any new ideas regarding objectivity, agenda setting, and the role of social media. My goal, however, was to show that they are all interconnected – and this itself is noteworthy.
Oh, and the point about Big Brother and the Illuminati controlling everything.