News Production Theories

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NEWS PRODUCTION THEORIES

News carries with it a powerful mythology, leading people to regard news as a mirror that is held up to society, a window on the world that tells "the way it is." Moving beyond this unproblematic view of journalism opens a wide range of important questions to research, predicated on the idea that news, like other forms of knowledge, is socially constructed.

The many attempts to explain the production of news have often taken a sociology of media view, which considers how media power functions within a larger social context. More narrowly, this approach is equated with the newsroom ethnographies that have been carried out by sociologists such as Herbert Gans and Gaye Tuchman. Taken more broadly, it suggests that the structural context of journalism must be tackled, moving beyond the more narrow attempt to psychologize the news process through the attitudes and values of individual practitioners, or "gatekeepers."

In her interpretive sociological approach to news, Tuchman (1978, p. 12) asserts that "making news is the act of constructing reality itself rather than a picture of reality," a view that leads her to think of news as a "frame." Newswork is viewed as the process of transforming occurrences into news events. Her ethnomethodological analyses of journalists in local news organizations examines how people make sense of the everyday world in its "taken for grantedness." Journalists, for example, find the meaning of objectivity in the specific procedures of quoting, sourcing, and balancing that have become synonymous with good work. Thus, reference to these steps, the "strategic ritual," as she terms it, rather than any philosophical recourse, is invoked when their work is challenged. Following the work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1967), Tuchman's work shows how meaning becomes objectified in the institutional "newsnet," rendering "historically given" the journalistic reports that are embedded in the time rhythms and geographical news "beat" arrangements of legitimated, official settings.

Framing the News

As a particularly influential concept in news study, the idea of "frame" is defined by Erving Goffman (1974) as the principles of organization that govern people's interpretation of and subjective involvement with social events. Interest in framing responds to the recommendation by Robert Hackett (1984) that studies of news move beyond a narrow concern with bias—deviation from an objective standard—to a more fruitful view of the ideological character of news, thoroughly structured in its content, practices, and relations with society. The notion of bias suggests that a faithful reflection of events is possible, while framing underscores the constructed quality of news. The surge of interest in framing highlights important issues. Precisely how are issues constructed, discourse structured, and meanings developed?

A number of definitions have been proposed to refine the framing concept. According to Robert Entman (1993, p. 52), a frame is determined in large part by its outcome or effect: "To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation." William Gamson and Andre Modigliani (1989, p. 3) define frame as a "central organizing idea… for making sense of relevant events, suggesting what is at issue," signified by the media "package" of metaphors and other devices.

Todd Gitlin (1980, pp. 7, 21) views frames as "persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse." His definition lays the emphasis on the routine organization, which transcends any given story and is "persistent" over time (resistant to change). In dealing with information, frames enable journalists to "recognize it as information, to assign it to cognitive categories." This gives frames a power, actively to bring otherwise amorphous reality into a meaningful structure, making them more than the simple inclusion or exclusion of information. In their analysis of social movement coverage, James Hertog and Douglas McLeod (1995) note that if a protest march is framed as a confrontation between police and marchers, the protesters' critique of society may not be part of the story—not because there was not room for it, but because it was not defined as relevant. Thus, it may be said that frames are organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time and that are working symbolically to provide a meaningful structure for the social world.

Hierarchy of Influences Model

To help summarize the forces that figure into the construction, or framing, of news, a "hierarchy of influences" model that is based on levels of analysis has been proposed by Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese (1996). In brief, these levels range from the most micro to the most macro: individual, routines, organizational, extramedia, and ideological, with each successive level viewed as subsuming the prior one(s). The hierarchical aspect draws attention to the idea that these forces operate simultaneously at different levels of strength in any shaping of news content.

Individual Level

At the individual level, the attitudes, training, and background of the journalist (or media workers more generally) are viewed as being influential. American journalists have encouraged a certain mythic image of their distinctive role in society and resisted viewing this product as a construction, like those produced in any other complex organization. Leo Rosten (1937) was perhaps the first to try to describe journalists in his study of Washington correspondents, but not until the 1970s did sociologists begin to apply the same occupational and organizational insights to this as to any other professional group. J. W. C. Johnstone, E. J. Slawski, and W. W. Bowman (1972) are frequently cited as making the first major empirical effort to describe U.S. journalists as a whole.

In more partisan-based research, the tendency of journalists to tilt liberal is sufficient to explain what conservatives view as a leftward slant in news content. S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman, and Linda Lichter (1986), for example, concluded that American journalists (those working at "elite" urban, primarily Northeast media) were more likely to vote Democrat, to express left-of-center political views, and to be nonreligious than were the American public as a whole. Broader surveys, such as those by David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit (1991), find that American journalists, across the entire country, are much more like the American public than the Lichter study would suggest. They have provided a valuable counterweight to generalizations about journalists that have been based on a few high-profile but unrepresentative cases.

The study of key news decision makers follows from the "gatekeeper" tradition of analysis that was begun by David Manning White (1950), who attributed great influence to the individual editor's subjective judgment. Later perspectives see the gatekeeper as greatly limited by the routines and organizational constraints within which they work (Becker and Whitney, 1982; Berkowitz, 1990).

Routines Level

The routines level of analysis considers the constraining influences of work practices, which serve to organize how people perceive and function within the social world. Analysis taking this perspective often finds the ethnographic method valuable because it allows the effect of these practices to be observed over time and in their natural setting. It is assumed that journalists are often not aware of how their outlooks are so "routinely" structured and would be unable to self-report honestly about it. And indeed, it is assumed that much of what journalists provide as reasons for their behavior are actually justifications for what they have already been obliged to do by forces that are outside of their control (e.g., Tuchman, 1972, 1978). Field observation suits the concern here with the ongoing and structured rather than the momentary or sporadic. The routines that have attracted the most interest have been those that have involved the frontline reporters, such as in local television news (Altheide, 1976; Berkowitz, 1990) and newspapers (Fishman, 1980; Sigal, 1973). A classic field study of national networks and newsmagazines, which was conducted by Herbert Gans (1979), showed how little journalists often know of their audiences, how influenced they are by other media—especially The New York Times —and their news sources, and how, while reflecting the enduring values and hierarchies of society, journalists must assume a detached attitude toward the consequences of their work.

Organizational Level

At the organizational level, the goals and policies of a larger social structure and how power is exercised within it may be considered. If the routines are the most immediate environment within which a journalist functions, the organizational level considers the imperatives that give rise to those routines and how individuals are obliged to relate to others within that larger formal structure. Charles Bantz, Suzanne McCorkle, and Roberta Baade (1980) exemplify this view in their depiction of local television as a "news factory," leading workers to take an assembly line view of their interchangeable commodity products rather than a more professional, craft-oriented perspective. The major questions addressed at this level are suggested by an organizational chart, which maps the key roles and their occupants, in addition to how those roles are related to each other in formal lines of authority. The chart additionally suggests that the organization must have ways to enforce and legitimize the authority of its hierarchy and calls attention to the organization's main goals (economic in relation to journalistic), how it is structured to pursue them, and how policy is enforced. The pioneering work of Warren Breed (1955) showed how social control is exercised nonovertly in the newsroom, ultimately by publishers, leading to self-censorship by journalists.

Newsroom studies often contain elements of both the routines and the organizational perspective, which are clearly related. This more macro level, however, is a reminder that news is an organizational product, produced by increasingly complex economic entities, which seek ever more far-reaching relationships in their ownership patterns and connections to nonmedia industries. While journalists have long needed to be concerned with business considerations influencing their work, now these concerns may stretch far beyond their immediate organization. As news companies become part of large, global conglomerates, it is often difficult to anticipate the many conflicts of interest that may arise, and journalists find it difficult to avoid reporting that has a relationship to one or more aspects of the interests of the parent company.

The organizational level brings different challenges for analysis than the previous two levels. Organizational power is often not easily observed and functions in ways not directly indicated by the formal lines of authority described in accessible documents. As Breed (1955) emphasized, power is not often overtly expressed over the news product because it would violate the objectivity notion, that news is something "out there" waiting to be discovered. Enforcing policy about what the news is to be would contradict this principle. At this level, there is curiosity about how decisions are made, and how they get enforced. By definition, the concern is with power that is exercised periodically, implicitly, and not overtly, which makes it not as readily available to direct observation. Indeed, a journalist anticipates organizational boundaries, the power of which is manifested in self-censorship by its members. Thus, journalists may accurately state that no one told them to suppress a story. This self-policing is more effective than direct censorship, however, because outsiders are often not even aware that anything has taken place.

Extramedia Level

At the extramedia level, those influences that originate primarily from outside the media organization are considered. This perspective considers that the power to shape content is not the media's alone; it is shared with a variety of institutions in society, including the government, advertisers, public relations, influential news sources, interest groups, and even other media organizations. This latter factor may be seen in the form of competitive market pressures. From a critical perspective, the extramedia level draws attention to the way media are subordinated to elite interests in the larger system. While individual journalists may scrupulously avoid conflicts of interest that may bias their reporting, maintaining a professional distance from their subject, their employers may be intimately linked to larger corporate interests through interlocking boards of directors and other elite connections. At this level, then, it is assumed that the media operate in structured relationships with other institutions, which function to shape media content. It is further assumed that these relationships can be coercive but more often are voluntary and collusive. Normative concerns at this level are for press autonomy, assuming often that it is not desirable for the media to be so dependent on other social institutions. Conceptually, this level encompasses a wide variety of influences on the media, but those systemic, patterned, and ongoing ways in which media are connected with their host society are of particular concern.

Ideological Level

Each of the preceding levels may be thought to subsume the one before, suggesting that the ultimate level should be an ideological perspective. The diverse approaches and schools of thought in media studies that may be deemed "ideological" make them difficult to summarize. Here, the concern at least is with how the symbolic content of media is connected with larger social interests, how meaning is constructed in the service of power. This necessarily leads to the consideration of how each of the previous levels functions in order to add up to a coherent ideological result. In that respect, a critical view would consider that the recruitment of journalists, their attitudes, the routines they follow, their organizational policy, and the 'positions of those organizations in the larger social structure work to support the status quo, narrow the range of social discourse, and serve to make the media agencies of social control. A critical view is likely to be concerned with how power is exerted by the natural workings of the media system, creating a process of hegemony. Gitlin (1980), in his classic study of media marginalization of the student movement in the 1960s, defined this as the "systematic (but not necessarily or even usually deliberate) engineering of mass consent to the established order." At this level, it must be asked how a system of meanings and commonsense understandings is made to appear natural through the structured relationship of the media to society.

Conclusion

Led by the media sociologists, research into the news production process has grown greatly since the early 1970s. These studies provide great insight into precisely how societal power, organizational processes, and individual characteristics of journalists interact to shape the news. The news produced, or "framed," as this constructed reality in turn frames the ways of thinking about social issues and the participation in public life.

See also:Cultural Studies; Culture Industries, Media as; Democracy and the Media; First Amendment and the Media; Functions of the Media; Globalization of Media Industries; Journalism, History of; Journalism, Professionalization of; Social Change and the Media; Society and the Media.

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Stephen D. Reese