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The Newsroom

A Space of Decision Making

by María Francisca Greene González (Author)
Monographs X, 232 Pages

Summary

Journalists are in the daily business of making the unseen visible, of connecting us to the world beyond our direct experience. In doing this, objectivity becomes a pivotal issue, and a highly debated topic both in academia and everyday life. The first systematic approach to the issue of objectivity was initiated by the discipline of «mass media sociology»: this approach, which was at its peak between 1970 and 1980 in the United States, proposed a completely scientific, «mathematical» solution to the problem of objectivity.
This book is an overview of academic work on journalistic objectivity between the 1970s and 1980s by American mass media sociologists such as Herbert Gans, Gaye Tuchman, Mark Fishman, Todd Gitlin, Edward Epstein, Harvey Molotoch, Marilyn Lester and Michael Schudson, observing and comparing their positions on journalistic routines and their influence on the news.
The ideal of objectivity is discussed from the points of view of the traditional and sociological schools, and weighed against the constant tension between a journalist's search for truth and their perception of it, as well as the constraints posed by the organization for which he or she works.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface (Maxwell McCombs)
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Mass Media Sociology and the Philosophy that Inspires Its Work
  • Chapter 2: Routines as a Work Method
  • Chapter 3: Objectivity in the Journalism Profession: The Perspective of Mass Media Sociologists
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← vi | vii →

MAXWELL MCCOMBS

Preface

In this time of ubiquitous and ever-expanding channels of communication, there is considerable talk and speculation about vast changes. However, the habits and needs served by communication – and the underlying behavior of content producers – do not necessarily undergo extensive metamorphosis with the appearance of new communication channels. Taking the broad view of the evolution of society, French journalist and novelist Alphonse Karr sagely observed two centuries ago, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” [The more things change, the more they remain the same].

In this book Chilean scholar Francisca Greene presents a solid case that this is substantially the situation for the communication media that bring us the news. Specifically, she offers a detailed analysis of the sociology of news, the major tenets that undergird the gathering and presentation of the news, whatever the specific channel of distribution. Her focus is on the work of eight American sociologists whose work in the late twentieth century collectively explains the nature and structure of the journalism that we receive via numerous communication media. As an aside relevant to much current talk about change, although the work of these eight scholars occurred during the emergence of television as a major mass medium, their analyses focus on news and the work of journalists without any need to distinguish the channel of distribution. In short, they elaborated the major tenets of journalism per se.

The eight scholars – all Americans – whose work is reviewed here are Gaye Tuchman, Edward Epstein, Harvey Molotoch, Marilyn Lester, Michael Schudson, Herbert Gans, Todd Gitlin and Mark Fishman. All were active during more or less the same period, their major publications appearing from 1972 to 1980. ← vii | viii →

At the core of the perspective emerging from their observations and analyses of how news is gathered and presented is the assertion that journalists “construct” reality. Their interaction with reality is not simply an intellectual task grounded in careful observation, but is a specific way of working. It is these journalistic routines that enable journalists to give form and content to the world around them, in other words, to construct reality. The news makes it possible for us to know what is happening not because the external world is endowed with certain forms that make it comprehensible, but because journalists use specific, preconceived methods to organize that world into something coherent. These routines originated in the professional situation of news workers, which includes an excess of material that could potentially be news, staff and budget constraints, and the need to compete with other media outlets.

It is these journalistic routines that guide the construction of the messages that we call news, routines that have guided journalism for decades and show little change with the recent proliferation of communication channels. One major aspect of these journalistic routines that is analyzed here in detail by Greene is a major reliance on external sources for information about the happenings and circumstances of the day. It is impossible to be an eye witness to most occurrences, so journalists’ knowledge of reality is based on the observation of sources. Usually individuals, these sources have an enormous influence on the content of the news. To reduce the undue influence of a particular source, journalists typically seek out multiple sources in order to take into account the limitations of any single source. These limitations range from partial knowledge of an occurrence to a source’s degree of interest in the occurrence.

These news routines are the keystone of journalism as a profession because it is through the use of these routines that journalists can build objective news stories. Although the sociologists whose work is reviewed here criticize the limitations of this view of objectivity, they conclude that in journalism, as in all other professions, objectivity is a type of consensus, a procedure and a formality that lends the professional a certain security in acting and protects their credibility. There are subtle differences in each author’s understanding of the concept of objectivity, and Greene’s detailed review of each sociologist’s work illuminates the nuances of gathering and ← viii | ix → reporting news quickly about an ever-changing environment, a situation that has greatly intensified in recent years. Her analyses of this fundamental work on the sociology of news in the late twentieth century help bring order and understanding to the vast panoply of channels in the contemporary media landscape. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →

Introduction

Objectivity in journalism is a broad topic highly debated from different points of view. Opinions on objectivity range from the academic – chapters on journalistic objectivity can be found in all ethics research papers and textbooks – to personal professional experience. Most recently, it has also become a topic of regular conversation in everyday life. People frequently complain that journalists have not been objective in their coverage of specific news. This issue is as old as the profession. When objectivity is mentioned, it refers to the principle of journalism; in other words, it is regarded as a characteristic or requirement of the journalist.

Using this traditional concept of journalistic objectivity, the perception of objectivity as a product of journalistic work is surprising. This book begins with the discovery of a novel approach to the treatment of objectivity, provided by so-called “mass media sociology”, which, at its peak between 1970 and 1980 in the United States, is a pragmatic proposal for a totally scientific, almost “mathematical” approach to the “problem” of objectivity.

On the other hand, “real” journalistic work shows professionals resolving the issue of objectivity in a practical way: awarding equal time to opposing positions; interviewing authorized sources; obtaining official declarations, etc. It is a fact that journalists around the world, not only those from the United States, have somehow established methods that allow them to achieve this ideal objectivity demanded by the academic world and even more strongly by their sources, the public and the business world.

Research dealing with objectivity in mass media sociology is especially relevant because it addresses a concept that is coherently argued in American thinking. Mass media sociology begins its argument “in reverse”, similar to journalistic ethics: it is concerned with objectivity from the point of view of the outcome, and not the attitude of the journalist.

To begin with, mass media sociologists maintained that objectivity is not related to news content, but rather its form. Later they stated that they don’t believe it is “correct” for it to occur this way, adding that real ← 1 | 2 → objectivity in news cannot be achieved using this approach. Throughout the course of their research, they were critical of journalistic work and pessimistic about the result of the work of the media.

This book covers what has been written about journalistic objectivity by the most influential media sociologists. With the exception of two, their work does not deal specifically with objectivity, but rather, in broader terms, with journalistic routines and their influence on the news. A thorough analysis of journalistic objectivity and how it is understood by mass media sociology will be conducted, although this issue is not the primary focus of their work. Interpreting, relating and examining the background of the positions that inspired the authors is required.

This book observes and compares both the traditional and sociological schools of thought to identify their similarities and differences, with emphasis placed primarily on the proposals of media sociologists, since they are the authors under review. They are all from the United States: Herbert Gans, Gaye Tuchman, Mark Fishman, Todd Gitlin, Edward Epstein, Harvey Molotoch, Marilyn Lester and Michael Schudson.

These eight sociologists lived and worked during the same period of time. They knew and influenced each other. Their concept of life and journalism was quite similar, as was the focus and the concerns of their studies. Although they followed the pragmatic philosophical point of view, there are, nevertheless, nuances which distinguish their approaches.

Despite the fact that media sociologists do not propose a definition of objectivity, they do reach one, although far from its traditional definition. Some of the authors come close to a definition, but they do not clarify dissimilar terms classically “related” to objectivity. In addition, they equate objectivity to truth, justice, credibility, accuracy and detachment.

This book is mainly about two issues: objectivity and journalistic routines. I would like to expound on this idea. The concept of journalistic routines was first named by media sociologists, and by way of ethnomethodological studies, they analyzed the relationship between the way journalists work and produce a product: the news. The question to be asked now is whether, after forty years of study, it is valid to speak of journalistic routines, ethnomethodology as a research method and the “story” that news reporters construct while knowing the reality. ← 2 | 3 →

Is it possible to talk about constructing news through routines in a changing stage where new actors are involved? We realize, as did media sociologists in the 1970s, that it is not useful to think of journalists producing news as a means to search for the truth and, therefore, becoming a watchdog for society.

There is sufficient literature on news-making thanks to the work of the first media sociologists. In this sense, Berkowitz has made a very good selection of texts (Berkowitz, 1997). News continues to be formed from the interaction between journalists, media and society. Schudson says in a later text (Schudson, 1989) that news is a product of work carried out in a social environment, and that the mass media is made up of bureaucratic organizations and news is the result of a routine and bureaucratic process.

The media sociology perspective is still valid because news production is not as simple as stating that journalists seek events and then transmit them to the public. Now there are even more factors involved in news production: citizen participation, blogs and a number of elements that, thanks to increasingly easy technology for citizens, make an empowered and active public. Neither can we separate influences from journalists’ beliefs, media, business pressures and audience. The work of journalists is shaped by the economic necessities of a media organization in its particular socioeconomic system. There is constant tension between the journalist’s search for truth and the constraints of the organization. Robert Park’s idea that news is a form of knowledge is still valid.

Biographical notes

María Francisca Greene González (Author)

María Francisca Greene González holds a PhD in Communications and is Professor of Journalistic Ethics at the Faculty of Communication of the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile. She is also a journalist and has worked in various Chilean printed media and public research institutes.

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