The Newsroom

A Space of Decision Making

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

Table Of Content

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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 →

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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.

What drove media sociologists to begin their studies was the “gatekeeper” research published in 1950 by David Manning White. The topic of the gatekeeper that gave rise to these studies is still present today, in addition to further variables. David Manning White’s question continues to be relevant: which of all the events that occur in reality become news? Who defines this? The term “gatekeeper” is still in use and provides a metaphor for the relation between news organizations and news products. The problem is that the news is already manufactured by the journalist, and it is the role of the gatekeeper to decide which news will be published.

In order to understand why the media sociologist’s argument is still valid, it is crucial to see journalists not as journalists, but as people who have to do their work well. News organizations need to be considered simply ← 3 | 4 → as production facilities, just like any other, with expectations for the quality and quantity of its workers’ activities. News is the outcome of strategic work routines that journalists apply to meet organizational expectations. News helps make sense of reality.

Journalists are our “make-sensers”. We need them to help us understand the world of public affairs beyond our direct experience. Talk show hosts, bloggers, political activists, politicians and commentators cannot be trusted to take care of the facts. Citizens need journalists more than ever because there is so much information available, of varying quality and relevance. Journalists are in the daily business of making the unseen visible, of connecting us to the world beyond our direct experience. Public life is increasingly complex and we need an ongoing source of timely and relevant information on daily issues.

Surveys over the past decade show a steady rise in the number of Americans who prefer to get their information from partisan bloggers or talk show hosts.

New journalists struggle with uncertainties, deal with new market pressures and create new journalists’ conventions to provide much-needed insight into the changes the Internet has wrought on the work and practice of journalism. However, the Internet is not the first “disruptive technology” to hit newsrooms. Other innovations have radically transformed the news media, but the Internet as the new channel for producing, packaging and distributing news has dramatically challenged every aspect of media organizations.

This new scenario for media and journalists has been analyzed in recent years. The topics studied have been wide-ranging: new business models; content analyses of the ways in which online news is leveraging the opportunities for new ways to craft information; essays about ethical issues in the online environment; surveys of professional attitudes and the new news consumer’s behavior and preferences. The daily work of journalists, their work routines and their values are not examined as extensively (Paterson and Domingo, 2008).

It is impossible to comprehend the nature of news – or manufactured reality – without getting to the heart of the manufacturing process and the shared culture of the manufacturers. ← 4 | 5 →

Literature reviews of online journalism research (Kopper, Kolthoff and Czepek, 2000; Boczkowski, 2002; Domingo, 2005) suggest that studies have concentrated more on content, professional profiles and attitudes and audiences than on the production routines and context of the working process. Without these early ethnographic investigations into news production, our understandings of journalism would be limited to what little we are able to gleam from the observation of news content, or from what journalists say they do.

Newsrooms are the actual space for decision-making in the development of online journalism, where genres, routines, values and products are tested and created.

Chapter 1 of this book is divided into two parts and points out the most important topics that will be dealt with. The first topic deals with the sociology of mass media and its main authors, including an “intellectual biography” of each one as well as an examination of their mutual influences. The main topics of each media sociologist are outlined, as well as the starting point of their research, how it was carried out and the emphasis they wanted to give to their texts. Because these authors are strongly influenced by pragmatism, it was necessary to review the most relevant concepts of this point of view in order to understand what they have to say about the media, the news, the journalist and objectivity.

The second part of Chapter 1 deals with how the scholarly authors arrived at the concept of objectivity through what they call “journalistic routines”. They maintain that news is constructed by journalists through work routines that guarantee the objectivity of the final product. They explain that objectivity is synonymous with news because of its form, and the news, in turn, is synonymous with the construction of reality. This is how the topics of routine, news and its relationship with objectivity are introduced, which will be dealt with in depth in Chapter 2. The end of the chapter examines the subject of the journalist as part of the news process, presented by the same authors.

Chapter 2 explains the routines of organizations in general, followed by those of journalistic work. These routines affect not only the work, but also, in an important way, media content. Sociologists consider that mass media is not like any organization: it “manufactures” a “product” comprised ← 5 | 6 → of facts, opinions or ideas that affect the way we perceive the world and how we make our decisions.

Sociologists consider objectivity as the form of news. In order to back up this affirmation, they make a detailed analysis of the way journalists manufacture or assemble a story. Of particular interest, in this sense, is the “fact-by-triangulation” method, which is explained in the second part of the chapter.

Finally, an analysis is made of the critique that objectivity receives when it is understood to be the mere form of the stories. The same media sociologists outline these critiques and conclude that “objectivity” ensured by routines facilitates bias, hides the real news content and protects journalists from any possible attacks from the public.

Chapter 3 focuses on the authors’ assertion that objectivity is as much a requirement of the journalist as it is a need to grant credibility to his stories and defend himself from criticism. This issue will be discussed through a historical retelling of objectivity in the United States. The authors will add that it is difficult for journalists to achieve objectivity.

The second part of the chapter presents the difficulties that reporters encounter when putting their stories together objectively. The third part deals with objectivity as an ethical ideal. Here the thinking of Desantes (1976) offers a definition of objectivity and satisfactorily answers the question of why objectivity is required in journalism. The most significant contribution to the ideas put forth in the book is the assertion that objectivity is an attitude of the journalist and, thus, an ethical ideal.

This position is not foreign to media sociologists because, in order to affirm that journalists conceive objectivity as a form of the news, they have outlined a series of arguments that are related to objectivity as an ideal. They will compare objectivity to other similar concepts. The detachment concept is particularly interesting. Through it, the authors propose that the journalist will resolve issues such as those regarding values and ideologies, professional autonomy and defense against different attacks.

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Mass Media Sociology and the Philosophy that Inspires its Work

This chapter deals with so-called “mass media sociology”, its main exponents and a brief biographical summary of each one of them. It presents their main body of work, the starting points of their research and the way in which they carried it out, the emphasis they wanted to give it and how they influenced each other.

There are seven classic authors in mass media sociology whose postulations are highly interesting. It therefore seemed important to include a brief analysis of the pragmatic philosophical wave which enormously influences and imbues their entire body of work. By referring to this underlying ideology, their stances toward the media, the news, the journalist and objectivity, which are the central issues of this book, will be understood. In the footnotes, the assertions made by these authors are outlined.

The second part of the chapter attempts to show, firstly, how the authors introduce the concept of objectivity through what they call “journalistic routines”. In short, they will say that the news is constructed by journalists through certain work routines that guarantee their objectivity. We will see how they argue that the news is synonymous with the construction of reality. This first aspect of the second part of the chapter introduces the issue of routines, the news and its relation to objectivity, which will be tackled in depth in Chapter 2.

Then, the role awarded by media sociologists to the journalist in this construction of reality will be described. The reference made in the first part of the chapter to scholarly authors and the ideologies that inspire their work is vital in order to understand their positions regarding the idea of the journalist as a constructor of reality. In this aspect, nuances are very varied. ← 7 | 8 →

The last part of the chapter puts forth an issue that will be approached in Chapter 3 and which studies the journalist as part of the news process.

Media Sociologists

The perspective of mass media sociology can be understood in the classic research of David Manning White and Warren Breed,1 which contains observation studies that examine the news as a bureaucratic manufacturing process within organizations. In a short period of time – between 1970 and 1980 – media sociologists produced very valuable research. This group of sociologists, interested in mass media and the news-making process, were critical of what they observed.2 ← 8 | 9 →

The so-called “classics” of a discipline are comprised of some key works that help shape and define the research of each one of the areas of social study. In the relatively new field of communications, Everett Rogers3 has identified social scientist Harold Lasswell, social psychologist Kurt Lewin, psychologist Carl Hovland and sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld as “founding fathers” or “classics”. The first studies in social communication were related to the effects of mass media on audiences.

Media sociologists can also be called “second classics” or “second founding fathers”. The list of their main works has been defined by Reese and Ballinger in the abovementioned quoted article and will be used as a main source for this research. They are: Deciding What’s News; Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality; Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen’s Notions of Objectivity; News from Nowhere; Manufacturing the News; The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left; News as Purposive Behavior: On the Strategic Use of Routine Events, Accidents and Scandals; and Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. The authors have many other contributions which will be quoted later on. These texts were chosen because they describe the process of manufacturing news as a result of a bureaucratic process.

It can be said that their status as external observers allowed sociologists to present a fresh look at journalistic work, taking the research by White and Breed as a starting point to develop the concept of manufacturing news. Mass media sociology deals with issues that directly affect the daily decisions of people who work in the news-making process, and how these decisions are practical responses to their need to manufacture the news. These eight media sociologists will be referred to as “second founding fathers”, “the authors” or “media sociologists”. ← 9 | 10 →

Beginning in the 1960s, interest began to grow in other topics related to communication: on the one hand, forces that shaped the message of mass media were questioned and, on the other hand, who and what marked the agenda of mass media were challenged. Since then, a number of investigations have been carried out which focus on the instruments that operate on different levels in mass media and which could be described as a “hierarchy of influences”. These include, at the most basic level, personal visions and roles of workers, and, on successively higher levels, the influences of journalistic routines, the organization of mass media, external pressure and, finally, ideology. These influences are described in detail in the work of Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese.4

While in general terms European research has focused on ideological and institutional studies, the American approach, from the start, has concentrated on more basic levels: individuals, routines and the organization. This research has helped to explain how news is constructed by individuals within a social and professional scenario.

Interest in examining the work and thinking of media sociologists lay in, from the beginning, an interest to take an in-depth look at the news-making process. Even more so than the influence of the mass media on public opinion, its role and its content as markers of public agenda, the mechanics of “manufacturing” the news, the selection and production of content, and ultimately, the journalistic work itself, were of interest.

After reading the authors’ research, a general conclusion can be reached that, as sociologists, they are concerned about one recurring theme: the structure of mass media – on both the organizational level of a news company and the journalistic working level in the editing room – prevents social movements, which are in disagreement with the order established by the ← 10 | 11 → authorities in power, from obtaining any relevance in public opinion and, hence in society. One could say that this is their main concern.5

This concern, shared by the scholarly authors, constitutes the basis for the main issues addressed in this book. Starting from this concern – the dissident movements – sociologists discover, describe and specify the journalistic work routines that condition the reporting, and later the writing, of the news in a way that they call “objective” and which, in their judgment, legitimizes the news. These routines prevent the mass media from showing, in a way that they believe is suitable, news about alternative or dissident movements. The issue of dissident movements, which is not incumbent on this book, will not be considered. Instead, the idea of journalistic routines will be dealt with in Chapter 2, and that of objectivity will be examined in Chapters 2 and 3. The authors carried out participant observation and conducted in-depth interviews for many years, analyzing media content and studying cases. One even took a position as a journalist at a newspaper so as to observe how reporters work “on the inside”.

With very different approaches and profiles, differing depths and nuances and various intentions, the authors focus on issues of routine and objectivity. These are by no means their central concern, but it is surprising to see the interest which it provokes, a kind of mystery that draws them to these issues. It is correct to say that none of the authors takes an in-depth look at either a definition nor composes a treatise on objectivity. It will become obvious that this is unnecessary when considering the characteristics of their work.

This book attempts to explain how the authors approach the concept of objectivity. In this sense, the most accurate research belongs to that of ← 11 | 12 → Schudson, with a story about objectivity in journalism, and Tuchman, with an essay about objectivity as journalistic routine.

In order to fully understand all that will be said about routines and objectivity, it seems pertinent to make a summary review of the profile of each of the authors: their concerns, influences, passions, styles, schools and the relationships among them.

The brief summary made of the works in genere could seem superficial upon discovering that all that the authors express follows an ideological current related to the philosophy of knowledge. Indeed, it is the key position that explains the authors’ concern for mass media, for the news as bearers of knowledge to a society it “knows” through the mass media and for dissident movements as representatives of a social reality unknown by the mass media and, thus, by the public.

The period in which they lived was marked by the pragmatic stance6 of Darwin and Dewey and by the psychology of William James, authors who will be referred to later on, and the influence of their thinking in some ← 12 | 13 → is outstanding. All the positions mentioned must be considered within the framework of these ideas of pragmatism, and from the perspective of granting importance to what we do, say and think in our daily lives prior to an approach to reality through theoretical concepts.

At One End: Molotoch and Lester, Fishman and Tuchman

By following the publication dates of the works, a chronological exposition could have been chosen from the beginning. This would have resulted in the following order: Tuchman (Objectivity as Strategic Ritual …), Epstein, Molotoch and Lester, Tuchman (Making News …), Schudson, Gans, Gitlin and finally Fishman.

But there is another order that seems more logical and which is related to how the authors were influenced by the prevailing position of the time: the critique of the gnoseological paradigm of modernity. The modern concept, in which the passive role of the human mind on knowledge is paramount, is widely refuted by different schools of thought that enhance the idea of the insertion of man in the world and that break away from the dualism world–person. The multiplicity of reactions against modernity highlights the concept that man creates the cognitive faculty through interaction with the world. The theoretical concept of knowledge is diluted. Hence, the emergence of the concept of the construction of reality that notably marks the work of media sociologists will be examined in depth in the second part of this chapter.

The main position which stems from pragmatism of the scholarly authors is ethnomethodology.7 This presupposes social reality as ← 13 | 14 → constructed. The adhesion of the authors to this way of thinking is interesting because it makes some scholarly authors more skeptical than others about the role of mass media in constructing reality. ← 14 | 15 →

Along these lines, a first group of authors is comprised of Harvey Molotoch, Marilyn Lester, Mark Fishman and Gaye Tuchman.8 They have been grouped according to their similar thinking with respect to the manufacturing of news and for the direct influence they had on each other.

Molotoch and Lester: Pioneers of the “Construction of Reality”

Molotoch and Lester belong to the University of California at Santa Barbara. In the article analyzed, News as Purposive Behavior: On the Strategic Use of Routine Events, Accidents and Scandals, they thanked Mark Fishman and Gaye Tuchman. They only incidentally refer to objectivity in the news. For this reason, their text will hardly be mentioned again, but for now, it is referred to for two reasons: the very important influence it has on the ← 15 | 16 → other authors and the contribution it has made to the concept of news as a construction of reality.

The central idea of the essay by Molotoch and Lester is that each type of event, which they distinguish as either routine, accidental, scandalous and fortuitous, tends to reveal different types of information about how society is organized. Each type supposes different challenges for those who hold or lack power. This essay seeks to understand the relation between different types of needs for news. It explains how the informational need of people placed in different ways regarding the news company results in the social and political knowledge of the public. From a sociological point of view, its approach is the relation between power and society and power and the mass media. Making use of ethnomethodology,9 Molotoch and Lester highlight the idea, which they share with the authors, that mass media is used as guarantor of the stability of power to keep an ideology hegemonic.

Molotoch and Lester are radical in their constructivist position. They conceive the news as a construction of reality10 because they believe there ← 16 | 17 → is no objective world to report on. In order to understand their proposal more clearly and what the rest of the authors do about the construction of reality and the manufacturing of news, it seems necessary to briefly examine the theory of constructivism and its origin: structuralism.

The term constructivism is used to characterize positions in which the notion of construction, and the correlating notion of “constitution”, plays an important role. The interest in looking at the principles of constructivism stems from the need to find an explanation to Molotoch and Lester’s premise that the journalist cannot reproduce a reality he observes since he approaches the fact with a preconceived idea. Fishman provides an explanation for this later.

The notion of constructivism cannot be understood without examining in depth its origin or, at least, its close relative: structuralism. It is interesting to point out that one of the founding principles of structuralism is that language is a system of internal relationships between signs. Without making an exhaustive analysis of the topic, it can be said that, in general, structuralist thinking is in keeping with the contemporary trend known as holism, which is the interpretation of language in a system in which internal relationships constitute “structures”. ← 17 | 18 →

Barthes gives a more direct explanation of the model proposed by Molotoch and Lester to construct news. The structural man, the author says, takes what is real, decomposes it and then recomposes it. Something new is produced between the two periods in time of structural activity, and that something is “nothing else but what is generally intelligible; it’s a ‘sham’ but this sham contains the very intelligibility of what is real”.11

The influence of Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology on Molotoch and Lester and the references they make to the ideas of Cicourel, Zimmerman and Pollner show they are strongly attached to the idea of knowledge being under constant construction in the individual’s interaction with the world that surrounds him. They see the news not as a reflection of the external world, but rather as a practical intention of those who have the power to determine the experience of others.

Molotoch and Lester will say, then, that the news is the result of practical, intentional and creative activities on behalf of promoters, compilers (journalists) and consumers of news. For this reason, their text is key to understanding the role of journalistic routines in the construction of news. For them, the news is the result of a set of calculated practices, carried out in accordance with the needs of the events caused by those who have access to the media.

These authors clarify that they will use the term public in the sense that Dewey does. It is not unusual that they refer to Dewey, one of the main exponents of pragmatism, in their essay. This is one more example of the marked influence exercised by the reactionary positions to the modern idea of the theory of knowledge. Dewey asserted that the information does not just go to the public, but that it “creates” it.12 Just like Garfinkel and the ← 18 | 19 → previously mentioned authors, Dewey thinks that during the process of knowledge the creation of reality is generated. His conviction of the idea of news as the construction of reality is reiterated; Molotoch and Lester will say the concepts are not a finite set of things that really “happened out there” of which we make a selection; our ideas are not “analogous to a selective perception of the world”.13 They propose, just as Garfinkel does, that what is “really happening out there” is identical to what people witness.

For these authors, each fact makes sense because of the context in which it is placed. That explains that events are created as they claim. Their essay outlines how these events are created. They follow the line we have ← 19 | 20 → already analyzed, in the second chapter, of Fishman and his analysis of the creation of events by bureaucracy. Journalistic routines, they explain, serve to construct the events promoted by some agents. They go into depth on the concern shared by all authors: how alternative groups of power or of protest, introduce themselves into the media, taking advantage of journalistic routines.

Molotoch and Lester are vanguards in their belief that all events are socially constructed and their “newsworthiness” is not part of their typical objectives.

The prism with which Molotoch and Lester examine the media completely discards the existence of a reality that is sought out to be transmitted to the public. Far from looking dispassionately at events which happen, for them, any occurrence is a potential resource for constructing an event, and the event so constructed is continuously dependent on purposes-at-hand for its durability.

It is interesting to look back, on this and other works that will be analyzed, where authors cite these “second founding fathers” to see how they influenced each other and from which positions they obtain their postulations.14 ← 20 | 21 →

Mark Fishman: An Explanation of the Creation of News

Mark Fishman studied in Santa Barbara, California. He probably met Harvey Molotoch and Marilyn Lester there. He began to publish in 1978 and has written two books: Manufacturing the News, in 1980, which we refer to in this dissertation and, together with Gay Lavender, Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs.15

A glimpse of Molotoch and Lester’s influence can already be seen in the book’s preface. He thanks Harvey Molotoch for being one of the main inspirations to begin this work for his doctoral dissertation in sociology. Fishman will say that his suggestion to first try his hand as a journalist before observing journalists from a distance was very assertive. Molotoch reviewed the first drafts of the book, which Fishman affirms broadened ← 21 | 22 → and reinforced the analysis. He also thanks Gaye Tuchman for her valuable comments and suggestions.

Fishman focuses on the character of “social facts”16 that journalists manufacture on a daily basis and the methods they use to generate them. Most of the realities that journalists deal with are not “brute facts”, but rather what have been called “institutional or social facts”, to use John Searle’s nomenclature in his work The Construction of Social Reality.17 ← 22 | 23 →

Fishman’s purpose is not to evaluate the journalists’ methods and conclusions in comparison to the criteria of the social scientists on suitable objectivity and methodology. Conversely, he wants to explain how what we read in the newspapers is constructed and how this occurrence reaches the newspaper.

Ethnomethodology criteria are vividly present in Fishman. He says that the way a society comes to know itself is a subject which receives little attention in the social sciences. He criticizes, however, the abundance of explanations of society generated inside itself.

The idea of interaction of Garfinkel, Dewey and other pragmatic authors that will be quoted, lead Fishman to conclude that the construction of social reality is inherent to the nature of the interaction. Furthermore, he will add that not only do the members know the world through the explanations they give each other, but that these explanations are part of the same social world that they describe and make intelligible. Subsequently, for Fishman, the explanations of the world receive their significance and are intelligible only in relation to their context. The influence of ethnomethodology in Fishman’s investigation does not only show up in his frequent allusions to Garfinkel, but also in his references to the works of his followers: Cicourel and Zimmerman and Pollner, who have been quoted above.

The starting point of Fishman’s analysis is a process whereby an important part of reality is socially constructed: the public reality of news of the mass media. Fishman detected that there are few systematic studies and empirical investigations of the significant role that mass media plays in the construction of large-scale social phenomena. He begins his research with the following questions: How is news manufactured in the mass media? and, how is it manufactured so that it creates and recreates the social phenomenon it sets forth?

Fishman introduces the perspective of construction of reality in this research through the empiric study of the coverage of a crime wave, which he deals with extensively in the book. Through this case he shows why, if public events are to be understood, the mass media, through which a ← 23 | 24 → community knows of the existence of these events, should be investigated. It is, he explains, to examine the manufacturing process of news.

In 1976, New York experienced a major crime wave. For seven weeks, all of the city’s media reported on brutal crimes against the elderly. Fishman would say that perhaps the most important consequence of this string of crimes that appeared in the media was that it formulated, publicly and in the media, a new category of crime: typical victims and typical criminals. Public protest against these crimes was immediate. The mayor of New York, among other measures, promised safer streets for senior citizens. One survey showed that fear of crime had expanded everywhere.

During this crime wave, Fishman was inside a press room of a TV station observing the work routine of an editor. He was studying how the editor selected the news and assigned the reporters and cameras for each story. He focused his investigation on the coverage of the crimes against senior citizens. He took note that certain aspects of journalistic work seemed to contribute to the very existence of this crime wave. During these observations, he discovered something that made him ask himself whether the entire process of manufacturing news was creating the crime wave it was reporting. A reporter who had investigated the story on the crimes against the elderly told him he had discovered police statistics that showed a decrease in these crimes in comparison to last year’s figures.

Fishman observed that several journalists had doubts about the crime wave. But no one could resist reporting on them. This “wave” was a force that influenced their judgment about what the real news was and it simply could not be ignored. Fishman concluded that “something” in the process of news manufacturing created the crime wave.

The observations made in the station’s press room indicated to Fishman that the crime wave was little more than a topic in the crime. Fishman will say then that the topics in these crimes, just like any other topic in the news, are concepts that organize. They enable the reporter to see different related incidents that create events in some subject that encompass them. News topics allow editors to organize interrelated news items in packages or groups which would otherwise be a confused series of events.

From the experience, Fishman discovers that topics allow journalists to give an appearance of order to the public and that editors need topics ← 24 | 25 → in order to review and select some of the many stories they receive every day. Fishman asks himself how crime waves come to being. Why do only a few crimes become “crime waves”? Looking at the sources of the crime waves in order to understand their origin and continuous existence, he concludes that it was a public event manufactured by journalistic work. That is to say, the crime wave was a construction of reality.

By stating that the consequences of news are not simple byproducts of the journalistic process but rather an integral part of it, Fishman clearly shows the idea of interaction between the organization and its environment, typical of Dewey. As news increases, media coverage affects the development of events, and the development of events leads to more coverage.

Fishman’s work provides evidence of Dewey and Garfinkel’s ideas of interaction: the news, that is, the term “public knowledge” as used by the authors, is manufactured insofar as the journalist is constructing the reality.

The pragmatic position and its assertion that reality cannot be seen as separate from the mind is adopted by Fishman. He criticizes researchers who assume that the news either reflects or else distorts reality, and that reality consists of facts and events that exist independently from how reporters think about and treat it during the process of manufacturing it.

Fishman is grateful to and deeply influenced by Dorothy Smith18 and Garfinkel with regard to the theory of knowledge. This explains Fishman’s ← 25 | 26 → insistence on arguing that journalists create a reality while knowing the world they want to transmit to the public. This is why he frequently quotes Molotoch and Lester.19 ← 26 | 27 →

Fishman also refers to the recurrent theme of media sociologists regarding journalistic routines as a basis for the conservation of a hegemonic ideology. In the last chapter he discusses the way a free and uncensored press, comprised of independent news agencies, provides a uniform vision of the world. This, in his judgment, can only be characterized as ideological. The roots of this ideological hegemony can be located in the routines that detect news.

The analysis of news reporting presented in the book’s chapters is based on extensive observation as a participant of the journalistic work of reporters and the editor of a TV station as well as a Californian newspaper: the Purissima Record.

In order to support his observations, Fishman worked as a journalist at the Purissima Voice (the alternative newspaper) for seven months. Lawrence Wieder, a sociologist friend, provided him with five months of participant observation in the Record, researched ten years earlier (1964–1965). Fishman observed five months more from 1973 to 1974.

Gaye Tuchman: Pragmatism in Journalism

The starting point of Gaye Tuchman’s20 analysis is her question about how journalists decide what is news, why they cover some events and not others, and how they decide what they and the public want to know. She wanted to research what sociologists call “the latent structure of news”. ← 27 | 28 →

Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality is the result of her eleven-year investigation to uncover the concept of news as the social construction of reality. In her introduction, she says Epstein, Fishman, Gitlin, Lester and Molotoch are all friends who read the drafts of her book, and extends special thanks to Fishman. It is not unusual for Tuchman to thank Fishman in particular since she returns to Fishman’s central subject, which in some way is also that of Molotoch and Lester, although with a difference. Her reference to the thinkers of pragmatism is more obvious. Tuchman herself makes the connection between each one of the works of Schutz, Smith, Garfinkel,21 Goffman and Berger and Luckmann as far as journalism and the news are concerned. ← 28 | 29 →

Tuchman adds a component in the elaboration of the idea of newswork as a product of certain routines. The origins of these will be examined later on, but for the moment, what Tuchman says about the study of the limitations of newswork and the availability of resources for reporters will be considered. Her work deals with journalists as professionals, of newspapers and television networks as complex organizations, and investigates how journalists determine facts and frame events and debates which are typical of civic life.

Tuchman’s work is more extensive in content than Molotoch and Lester’s essay, which focused on the relation between informational needs and the production of social knowledge. And it covers more subjects than Fishman’s thorough research about the production of news as a bureaucratic product.

The research information was collected through participant observation and interviews during a ten-year period. Using participant observation methodology,22 the work presents concrete descriptions, examples and analysis of newswork. It also remits to a theoretical debate about the role ← 29 | 30 → of knowledge in the construction of social meanings and the organization of experience.

Tuchman’s book, with a novel analysis of the other mass media sociologists, looks at news as a frame, examines how this frame is constituted and how the news agencies and journalists are assembled. Her work emphasizes the ways professionalism and the decisions stemming from professionalism are the result of a need of the organization. Smith’s sociological ideas on daily living, Dewey’s on interaction, and Garfinkel’s on ethnomethodology enormously influenced Tuchman. As a result, in her work she explores the process whereby news is “socially constructed” or, in her own words, how occurrences in the everyday world are rendered into stories occupying time and space in the world called news.

The perspective with which Tuchman looks at news is purely ethnomethodological, since, from her point of view, the news does not only render existence to occurrences as public events but also confer character. Thus, they help shape the public definition of occurrences, attributing to them, in a selective way, specific details. This theoretical focus makes this book not only an empirical study of mass media sociologies, organizations, and occupations and professions, but also an applied study of the sociology of knowledge.

Tuchman returns to a key idea with which this chapter began and clearly shows why incursions into the field of gnoseology have been made to explain the authors’ concept of news, the media and journalism in general and, ultimately, of objectivity. In order to release the news which people want, need and must know, news agencies circulate knowledge at the same time they shape it. Their affirmation is supported by the idea, shared by the other authors, that the news is a source of knowledge for the public.

Tuchman points out that some earlier studies have also shown that explanations of events in the news can serve as the context in which consumers of news discuss the meaning of events, even when the participants of the events have a diametrically opposed understanding of the same occurrence. ← 30 | 31 →

By placing emphasis on news as knowledge, Tuchman suggests that news reports are the only means of mass communication which give shape to the comprehension of the everyday world, and especially to interpretations of new phenomena. We return to the idea of the importance of the everyday world and of experience in the process of knowledge. Strongly influenced by Smith, Tuchman rejects the idea of concepts as the starting point of knowledge.

News gives events their public nature as they transform mere occurrences into events that can be discussed publicly. To explain this idea, Tuchman refers to Robert Park, who referred to news as the modern replacement of the town preacher. The news constitutes a social institution for Tuchman since it confers a public nature to occurrences. Firstly, she argues how news is an institutional method which makes information available to consumers. Secondly, she states that news is an ally of legitimate institutions, a recurrent idea of the authors. She cites, for example, how a secretary of state can place an idea in the media, while the “average” man or woman does not have such access. Nor does an ordinary citizen, she states, have the same power as legitimate politicians and bureaucrats to convert his reaction to the news into politics and public programs. Thirdly, she refers to her theory of the “news net”, by saying that the news is located, searched and distributed by professionals who work in organizations.

This latter argument explains the existence of routines by saying that the news is inevitably a product of journalists who rely on institutional processes and who adhere to certain institutional practices. Fishman’s idea about the relation between journalistic routines and bureaucracies is seized by Tuchman. She states these practices necessarily include the association with institutions whose news is reported in a routine fashion. Hence, she claims that the news is a product of a social institution and is furthermore rooted in the relations with other institutions.

The concept of news as described by Tuchman allows certain ideas to be affirmed and emphasized. The public knowledge that provides news to the people is a product of a series of professional routines which enable the journalist to interact with the world that surrounds him and hence produce this public knowledge. Tuchman assumes that the news is a product of cultural resources and active negotiations. She introduces the concept ← 31 | 32 → of “business negotiation” into making news. The idea of news as a frame is directly related to the concept of news as an interaction between the individual and the world, since the journalist selects which details he will include, and hence exclude, in the story.

The idea that the act of producing news is an act of constructing reality itself more than constructing an image of reality is a subject matter that runs throughout the book. It shows how newswork transforms occurrences into news events and how it resorts to aspects of daily life to tell the stories it presents to the public. This task, she says, serves as a basis for social action. However, Tuchman explains that the news-making process is not carried out in a vacuum and, therefore, professionalism serves organizational interests by reaffirming institutional processes in which newswork is involved. Tuchman shows this in the following way: reporters dispersed in space and time. Reporters are placed in specific locations (beats) to find occurrences that may be transformed into news. Bureaucratic chains of authority are examined so as to follow the trail of occurrences and the negotiated selection of daily news. It is this collective bargaining which, according to Tuchman, assigns the quality of “newsworthiness” to daily occurrences.

Tuchman argues that news sources and facts mutually construct or constitute each other, given that the news net identifies some sources and institutions as suitable locations for facts while spurning others. News practices create “almost legitimate” leaders to be used as sources when the legitimate leaders are not available to generate facts. This “facticity network”, as Tuchman calls it, is an idea analogous to the one used by the other authors, which states that routines allow a hegemonic ideology to prevail in society and maintain the status quo. Tuchman concludes in her book that journalists’ routine practices present the news as an ideology, a medium of not knowing, a medium to agitate, and in this way, to legitimize the network of political and business activity.

Tuchman’s work studies the coverage of the feminist movement. She shows the simultaneous institutionalization of this movement alongside the reporting of it. She pays special attention to the “professional blinders” and organizational restrictions that at first dismissed the movement and then transformed its radical theme into a force for reform. It emphasizes how the feminist movement was created as a news topic. ← 32 | 33 →

Another one of Tuchman’s contributions is the subject of interpretive sociology which explains how daily practices can be a medium for not knowing.23 After contrasting the two approaches of newswork, the traditional and the interpretive, she explains the concepts that are implicit in her statements. These concepts include Alfred Schutz’ “natural activity”; the ideas of “reflexivity” and “indicativity” of Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology; Goffman’s treatment of frame and Berger and Luckmann’s use of “the social construction of reality”, which is also the title of the book by these two authors. Tuchman’s concept of news as a reality constructed by a news process explains precisely how she has assimilated and captured these thinkers’ ideas of newswork. She uses the interpretive angle to study the news in order to show how newswork transforms daily occurrences into news.24 ← 33 | 34 →

These descriptions of newswork use, sometimes implicitly, other times explicitly, the concepts “reflexivity” and “indicativity”, proposed by the ethnomethodologists, as is the concept of “frame” offered by Goffman (1974) ← 34 | 35 → and “social construction of reality” developed by Berger and Luckmann (1967). All of these concepts emphasize that men and women actively construct their social meanings. In the end, they all stem from the work ← 35 | 36 → of Alfred Schutz (1962), a philosopher of the social sciences whose ideas also influenced Dorothy Smith. Schutz’s work derives from the studies of Edmund Husserl, Henri Bergson, Max Weber and William James.

Drawing inspiration from them, Tuchman says there is a traditional viewpoint maintained by Roshco (1975) who states that the definition of news in any society depends on its social structure. This idea will be reintroduced later on in this chapter to explain how Tuchman conceives construction of reality as a “socially shared phenomenon”. ← 36 | 37 →

In differing degrees, all pragmatists that have been mentioned emphasize how sociological reasoning occurs in everyday life and, in turn, contributes to it. Sociology codifies attitudes and opinions, births and deaths, explains Tuchman, through the manipulation of information. According to critiques of Smith, Garfinkel and Cicourel, their theories are based on pre-theoretical formulations of social actors that make sense out of daily life. At the same time, Tuchman will say as she follows these thinkers, sociology serves as a social resource to understand structural phenomena and hence as a resource for social action. As news, according to these sociologists, it is indicative and reflexive; it is both a description and an actor of society.25

Molotoch and Lester, Fishman and Tuchman belong to a more closed circle of mass media sociologists than the rest. Their ideas are more similar and they are at the vanguard with the idea of constructing reality through the news. This idea is easily explained by the academic contacts they kept among each other and the influence of the pragmatic positions of Schutz, Dewey, James, Smith, Goffman, Berger and Luckmann and mainly of the ethnomethodology of Garfinkel and his followers. ← 37 | 38 →

News and Ideological Hegemony: Gitlin’s Point of View

The other mass media sociologists are also influenced by these tendencies, although to a lesser degree and in a less obvious way. The concerns of the first three are quite similar though with some different nuances. Those of the following are more dissimilar hence their position regarding the formation of knowledge is not as intense.

Todd Gitlin26 is interested, as are the others, in mass media coverage of left-wing movements. In the mid-1960s, he realized that the majority of the activities of these movements were not considered as newsworthy. While working for an underground paper he discovered that mass media images were being manipulated when he found out that the CBS headquarters in New York ordered a news item to be rewritten so as to change its political slant. This circumstance led him to ask the question: Why, after all, do the mass media say what they say and show what they show? Why was this story intervened and not others? ← 38 | 39 →

The starting point of his work is that mass media images and narrations are manufactured, but not because the business of the image is propagandistic in itself or of especially bad quality in comparison to other business or professions. They are manufactured for the simple reason, he will say, that news organizations have their own agenda.

This presents the dilemma, shared by other mass media sociologists,27 and which will be returned to later on, that reporters are not free searchers of the truth who, at times, commit unfortunate mistakes. Instead, they compose versions of reality. He critiques the conviction with which the New York Times affirms: “all the news that’s fit to print” or that of CBS: “the way things are”.

Gitlin approaches the subject of hegemonic ideas the mass media helps to maintain in a society through the issue of distortion and the versions of reality. Experience has shown him that the version of reality can be more or less comprehensive, or fair, or penetrating. But their versions are just that, versions, not “God’s direct view”. He asks how a finite human organization dares to claim: “that’s the way things are”, since it is possible that the men and women who work there do not agree with the way things are.

Gitlin’s work emphasizes his concern that the mass media does not reproduce reality. He does not talk about the construction of reality, but instead, sees the intention on behalf of the mass media to transmit events to the public. Gitlin is the author who most forcefully highlights the idea that mass media is the ideological promoter of the powerful and helps to ← 39 | 40 → maintain the status quo. He will say that stereotypes are inevitable and that this type of distortion of identity is typical of those who have been stigmatized, such as racial minorities, for instance.

As an exercise, Gitlin proposes to imagine a person who suddenly discovers that many people who have never seen him believe to know everything about him, and what they know about him is not what he knows about himself. Hence, wherever he goes, his label precedes him. If he is a politician, then the images that are irradiated from his activities are central to the meaning of what he does and thus who he is. These images rewrite his action and have consequences, most likely unmanageable.

The idea of everyday life and that of interaction, which are reviewed with the previous authors, is also present somehow in Gitlin. He points out that, as the mass media has multiplied and also reduced its purposes, it has penetrated the daily experience on a deeper scale. It has become less important as a channel of political conscience and more important as a substitute of political conscience.

Gitlin’s research deals with mass media, the New Left and its complex relations in a specific historical period of time. He outlines a conflict, which he considers to be fateful, of the control of public cultural space in a society saturated by mass media. He explains that, since the advent of radio, social movements have been organized, have struggled and have shaped their social identities on an “illustrated” social ground. The economic concentration of mass media and its speed and efficiency to expand the news has come together to produce a new situation with respect to the movements that seek to change the order of society. Thus, he will say that the movements, mass media and sociology have been slow to explore the meanings of the modern cultural environment.

Gitlin is pessimistic about the role of mass media. He describes the situation by saying that people only know directly very small regions of social life. Their beliefs and loyalties lack deep tradition. Instead, the modern situation is precisely the common vulnerability of rumor, the news, tendencies and trends. Because they lack the safety of tradition, or of shared political power, people are pressured to trust in mass media to guide themselves in a dark and changing world. He describes the penetration of mass media of ← 40 | 41 → the political community while at the same time crushing it as a reciprocal process, and hence, the popular dependence on mass media.

Gitlin’s work describes how mass media provides a public world made for private spaces. He places much emphasis on the fact that people turn to mass media to obtain concepts, images of their heroes, to guide information, to be charged emotionally, for recognition of public values, for symbols in general, even for language. It offers a relevant definition of the function of mass media by saying that of all the institutions in everyday life, mass media specializes in organizing everyday knowledge by virtue of its omnipresence, its access, and its symbolic centralizing capacity. He adds that it (the media) gives names to different parts of the world, certifies reality as reality (italics are the author’s). And when its certifications are doubtful and opposite, as tends to happen, these same certifications are what limit conditions of effective opposition. Gitlin simplifies the idea: mass media has become the central distribution system of ideology.

Without the theoretical explanation of the previous authors and without looking for the ideological sources of what is happening on a daily basis in mass media, Gitlin says, in short, something similar to what the three previous authors dealt with: every day, either directly or indirectly, by affirmation or omission, in photographs or words, in entertainment, news and publicity, mass media produces the ground for definitions and associations, symbols and rhetoric, through which ideology turns into manifest and becomes concrete.

With a simpler and less theoretical approach, he maintains that an important challenge for ideology is to define and delimit its opposition. This statement does not mean that Gitlin is not as profound or relevant in his observations; if he were, the previous authors would most likely not have quoted him. His study is more practical: he observes and describes.

Gitlin sees the omnipresence and centralization of mass media and its integration into the dominating economic sector and the State network28 ← 41 | 42 → as a threat for dissident movements and a new condition for the opposition, a concern he shares with Gans and Epstein, as it will be seen later on.

He will say that in an “illustrated” society it is very difficult and perhaps unimaginable for an opposition movement to define itself and its vision of the world outside of the dominating culture while forging an infrastructure similar to those self-generated by cultural institutions.29

The resulting meanings, now mediated, adds Gitlin, acquire a strange form in the real world, external to their “makers” which confront each other as an enemy force. The social meanings of the intentional action, an idea Gitlin repeats frequently, have been deformed to the point that they are unrecognizable.

Gitlin will reach the same conclusion as the rest of the mass media sociologists. The political movements feel they are called to trust in large-scale communication media to import (italics are the author’s), to say who they are and what their intentions are with the public they want to influence; but in the process they turn into “newsworthy” items only to yield to the implicit rules of the news process, to accept the journalistic ideas about what is news, what is an event and what is a protest. ← 42 | 43 →

Another idea introduced by Gitlin is, as seen before, the impact of news networks on dissident movements. Clearly, they place them in a negative role as images to convert (italics are the author’s) them into “the movement” for broader publics and institutions that have few or no sources of information. This image, according to Gitlin’s thinking, has an impact on public policies and when someone opposes the movement, what he opposes is basically a set of images mediated by mass media. Mass media defines the public meaning of events, of movements or, on their elimination, deprives them from a greater meaning.

Mass media images, a concept that Gitlin has picked up from Tuchman, also involves the image that the movement has of itself; the media certifies leaders and official “personalities”. However, it can turn leadership into fame, which is something completely different. The idea, which Tuchman picked up from Goffman, stating that frames turn unrecognizable occurrences into a discernable event, is, in turn, picked up by Gitlin. Because the frame gives an event, considered a newsworthy occurrence, the status of news, Gitlin explains that the forms of coverage accredit a systematic frame, and that this expanded framing helps to determine the movement’s destiny. The movement’s projects often do not coincide with the framing given by the media.

Gitlin, like the other authors, also refers to journalistic routines designed within the political and economic interests of news organizations, which are usually combined in order to select certain versions of reality and not others. Thus, Gitlin once again gives an intentional slant to routines by saying they are designed within political and economic interests. He didn’t have in mind the other variable included by the rest of the authors: an efficient method of organization and planning work.

Gitlin gives an explanation that the other authors have avoided and that, to a certain extent, is expected to continue. His dissertation states that when the prevailing ideology changes in society day after day, the normal organizational procedures will define “the news”, identifying its actors and its issues, and suggest suitable attitudes towards them. Only in moments of political crises and large-scale changes in the prevailing hegemonic ideology ← 43 | 44 → will the political and economic managers and owners intervene directly to reorient and reinforce the prevailing journalistic routines.30

Gitlin frequently refers to the concept of framing. Adding to Tuchman’s statements he says that what makes the world seem natural beyond experience is the media’s frame. He defines frames as principles of selection, emphasis and presentation that comprise a hardly tacit theory about what exists, what happens and what’s important. He also quotes Goffman who maintains that we frame reality in everyday life so as to negotiate it, manage it, understand it and choose suitable repertoires of cognition and action. Gitlin goes on to say that frames organize the world for journalists who report on it and, in good measure, for those who rely on these reports. The other authors under study attribute routines to the role that Gitlin grants frames to make it easier for journalists to process large quantities of information quickly and routinely: to recognize it as information, assign it cognitive categories, and package it for easy transmission to the audience. For organizational reasons, frames are inevitable and journalism is organized to regulate its production.

Gitlin explains how prevailing ideology changes in a society. He describes them as damaging or critical moments when routines do not serve a coherent hegemonic interest. Routines produce news that do not harmonize with hegemonic ideology, nor with important interests of the elites as they constructed them, or else the elites are so divided that they don’t discuss news content.31

To put it another way, Gitlin explains, the cultural apparatus usually maintains its own momentum (speed), its own standards and procedures ← 44 | 45 → that guarantee certain independence from the political and economic elites. In a liberal capitalist society, this independence helps to legitimize the institutional order as a whole and the news in particular. But the elites prefer not to let this independence stretch out “too much”. It serves the interests of the elites in as much as it is “relative”, while it doesn’t infringe the medullar hegemonic values or contribute too much to radical criticism or social discontent.

The elites, according to Gitlin, establish routines to define what is “going too far”. But when they stand equally on important issues and medullar values are discussed in depth, as they were in the sixties, journalism in itself is refuted. Opposition groups who pressure for political and social change may take advantage of the contradictions of hegemonic ideology, including their journalistic codes. Hence, social conflict is taken to cultural institutions, though weak and inoffensive, and then ideological domestication plays an important part, together with the less visible activities of the police, in filtering and isolating the ideological threats from the system. On this point he quotes Gans.

Gitlin defines ideology as the designed experience of the world. And, according to him, any social theory on ideology poses two interconnected questions: How and where are ideas generated in society and why are certain ideas accepted or rejected in different degrees at different times?32

Gitlin explains how he made the research that resulted in this work. A first type of question is related with the nature of mass media coverage.33 The first step was to locate the central emphasis on the coverage of the ← 45 | 46 → movement and then locate the centralized assumptions of the media, which are usually not mentioned, about the political world and particularly the political opposition. At this point he quotes Molotoch and Lester. Gitlin observed that television selects violence as the (italics are the author’s) content and masks this selection with the paraphernalia of quantitative methodology. The first part highlights how mass media handled this movement. He points out the case of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1965, organizing the discussion in chronological order so as to draw attention to the regularities and changes of the journalistic frames.

A second round of questions is related to how the New Left handled mass media treatment. How did the New Left approach the media over time? How did it solve problems? This brings him to a third round of questions: What consequences did media coverage bring for the movement – its structure, leadership, policy, strategies and tactics- regarding the history, texture and mood of the New Left’s sentiments? These second and third sets of questions were applied to Students for a Democratic Society between 1965 and 1970.

Two questions lie on the surface of these issues. First of all, why did the media do what they did? By reporting on the movement, the importance of journalistic routine, organizational planning, specific (and changing) institutional interests of the media, broader political and economic structures of society (also changing), and the ideological circumstances, needs and consequences of these structures were discussed. How did the media treat the movement in comparison to any other social occurrence according to the dignity of a continuous story? And, not any less important, Gitlin asks: Why did the movement do what it did?

And finally, he asks how much can the experience of Students for a Democratic Society with the mass media be generalized to other movements, in other times in history?

Gitlin’s study focused on CBS and the New York Times. He watched video archives, conducted in-depth interviews with CBS staff and participant observation. At the New York Times, he reviewed microfilm archives ← 46 | 47 → from 1965 to 1970 on news of Students for a Democratic Society. He discovered that the frames at CBS and the NYT were the same.34

He analyzed the news by making an extensive coverage of the New Left in 1965, because this was the year the principle frames were designed; this year was the year that the New Left entered the agenda of the mass media. Looking closely at this coverage he could see the original frames and observe how they hardened, and the hegemonic definitions of how, in his opinion, things are. He analyzed a whole year of newspapers and news programs.35 ← 47 | 48 →

Schudson and his Passion for Objectivity

Michael Schudson36 very often quotes John Dewey and Walter Lippmann. It’s worthwhile to take a brief look at Lippmann’s work. Not only does Schudson refer to him, but so do all of the other mass media sociologists.

In Liberty and the News (prior to Public Opinion), Lippmann concludes that the news in newspapers about one of the most important events of the century was distorted and inaccurate, based not on facts, but rather on “the hopes of men that comprised the news organizations”.37

His work’s point of view is from the public opinion and the public’s understanding of the news; he doesn’t go into depth about the selection nor the production of news. His position that the distortion of news is inevitable was the result of his participation as a propagandist in World War I.

The relationship with mass media sociology can be seen from the perspective of Lippmann’s idea that people define concepts according to “stereotypes” imposed by our culture. Lippmann is concerned that if stereotypes determine what we see, our perceptions will not be much more than partial truths. What we assume to be “facts” are only opinions. In this sense, he says that facts are subject to interpretation.38 ← 48 | 49 →

The strength of Lippmann’s work lies in his thesis about how information is delivered and received, in his analysis of psychological roots of human perception, and in the effect that a world “out of reach, out of sight and out of mind”39 has over the democratic dogma that “the knowledge needed to handle human affairs comes spontaneously from the heart”.40

Lippmann’s ideas strongly influenced Michael Schudson whose work originated in his interest to follow the trail of the social history of important modern values. Schudson’s work, which will be analyzed now, constitutes a specific study on objectivity in American journalism. This work became Schudson’s doctoral dissertation in the Department of Sociology at Harvard University. Gaye Tuchman helped him convert his dissertation into a book and Herbert Gans critiqued his first chapter.

Schudson’s starting point is the question of why is objectivity required of journalism and why is it requested so frequently? What world is this and what type of institution is journalism that holds up this particular ideal: objectivity? This is the problem this book confronts. It doesn’t make the familiar question: Are newspapers objective? The scope of Schudson’s book is historical. It covers the issue of objectivity in all the professions and especially in journalism by exploring the history of American press.

There is a clear reference to pragmatism in the critique that Schudson makes of those he calls “naive empiricists”.41 In his opinion, they considered ← 49 | 50 → facts to be aspects of the world itself and not affirmations of men and women about the world, an idea which will be returned to when an in-depth look is taken at the concept of constructing reality.

Schutz and Smith’s ideas are particularly present in Schudson’s statements, who says that the “world” is something people construct as an active game of their minds and their acceptance, not necessarily “true”, of ways of seeing and talking. It is obvious that Goffman has also done his part with Schudson through the concept of frame. Schudson affirms that philosophy, the history of science and the social sciences have made great efforts to show that human beings are cultural animals that know, see and hear the world through filters that are socially constructed. In his historical recount, he highlights the year 1920 as a milestone, when social thinking at the time began to see the idea that human beings, both individually and collectively, construct the reality they relate to.

The question that Schudson poses is why the ideal of science and objectivity is so relevant in our culture. Two mechanisms of social control ensure objectivity in different fields: one of education and entertainment, and the other of isolation from the public. In this context, the idea of objectivity in journalism appears to be anomalous for Schudson. Objectivity is a problem in journalism. Why then, he asks, is there so much passion for objectivity in journalism?

Originally, he conceived this work as a case study about the history of professions and the genesis of professional ideology. He saw that objectivity was the dominant concept that legitimizes knowledge and authority in all contemporary professions. The book does not achieve his initial ambition. He became fascinated with journalism and was convinced that there were questions, not only not answered, but not asked about the relation between journalism and the development of American society as a whole. The main purpose of his work is the relationship between the ← 50 | 51 → institutionalization of modern journalism and general issues of economic, political, social and cultural life.

Influence of the Chicago School and Functionalism in Gans

Herbert Gans42 will say that the subject of his book is about journalists being the main source of information on America for most Americans. The initial idea of this study dates back to the sixties when the Cold War was at its height and the Cuban missile crisis appeared as the end of the world for the Americans.

The first part of the book describes how national popular media reports on America; the second, points to why it is reported on so much; and the third proposes other methods of reporting on it.

Before writing this book, Gans thought he would study how mass media covers events, how news affected the public and how, in turn, the public affected the decisions that were taken in Washington. However, when he started this study in 1964, he realized he couldn’t confront all of these questions on his own. Meanwhile, the international scenario had improved and the Vietnam War was not yet an important subject. He became more interested in what was happening inside the United States and he decided to study what this society said about itself through the news and why. He focused on studying domestic news reported by the ← 51 | 52 → media that reached a national audience. He chose three television networks and the three most important weekly magazines (ABC, CBS and NBC; Newsweek, Time and U.S. News and World Report).43

Most of his time was spent on studying journalists in these four news organizations to discover how they selected news and what they left out; how they reported the news they selected; what criteria they used for selecting and what type of people they were.

He carried out several community studies by using participant observation methods.44 He basically used the same approach to study four “journalistic communities” in New York studios and offices. He observed how journalists worked, talking with them about how they decided what was news, attending editorial meetings and witnessing informal discussions inside and outside the office.45

Gans will make it clear that the book is not really about the four news organizations, but rather about national news, journalism and journalists in ← 52 | 53 → general, adding that this book is an attempt of a sociologist to understand journalists. From the traditional community studio, he has tried to report what he thought was relevant in the communities he observed, but he focused on a second aspect: the informal rules that guide news judgment. One of the interviewed journalists stated with conviction that Gans was writing about the unwritten rules of journalism. However, Gans explained that rules have values and the book is also about the values and ideology of a profession that considers itself objective and not ideological.

This is the first time the word “values” is mentioned in the recounting of the authors’ life and work. Indeed, the last two authors reviewed, Gans and Epstein, mark a difference in this sense from the others. It’s not a coincidence that they were left for last. On one hand, they introduce the concepts of values, decision and willpower to newswork. This work is no longer the product of only some routines. On the other hand, as it will be seen, they explicitly take distance from the gnoseology maintained by Molotoch and Lester, Fishman and Tuchman and to a lesser degree from Gitlin and Schudson.

Another aspect found in this text and more in-depth in Epstein’s work is the analysis of the commercial forces and policies that generate both rules and values, among other things.

The starting point of Gans’ work is the examination of sources and the audience, forces that have a bearing on journalists that come from outside the news organizations. The idea of hegemony and the role of mass media in the formation of society’s image is present in everyone’s work, and Gans is no exception. He affirms that journalists have more clout than other professionals because they express and often contribute to economic, political and social ideas and values that are dominant in America. Indeed, he points out that while he was writing about journalists, he felt he was also writing about the dominant culture in America and its economic and political fundaments.

To carry out his work, Gans made an analysis of content which he explained proceeded from the supposition that news contains an image of the nation and society but that journalists were not paid to present this image. Their work consists of creating “stories” about what they have observed or whom they have interviewed. However, the result of their work ← 53 | 54 → can be seen, over time, as an image of America. Gans’ supposition hints at the previously described idea of constructing reality. The difference, which we already have clarified somehow, is that for Gans, the starting point of this image resides outside the journalist.

In his analysis of content, he observed recurring patterns in the news and found a structure in news content which he discovered was not only a product of the imagination of the work of the analyst since journalists, who cannot report on everything that’s happening in the United States, must choose only a few actors and activities out of millions of choices. The result, then, is a recurring model of news of a small number of impartial actors and activities.46

Gans emphasizes the selection of news but he also examines somewhat the production of news since he believes that in order to study the selection one must study how journalists report and write or film their stories. In turn, his interest is also focused on the unwritten rules journalists apply, which he will call considerations. These considerations are what have been called “routines”.

Gans is afraid that his research may be scarce if he only focuses on journalistic rules. Hence, he also approaches the roles played by the sources of news, audiences and people who pressure to censure the news in the total process as well as on the commercial considerations and others that originate from the fact that journalists work in organizations for news companies. He will conclude that, precisely these considerations, are a product of economic, political and cultural forces and agents external to the news company.47 ← 54 | 55 →

One of the main contributions that Gans makes to this discussion is his version about how journalists approach events. He makes an important clarification and distinction of his work with that of the previously studied mass media sociologists. He maintains that the researchers who lean towards phenomenology have made a very important contribution in their understanding of journalists and their work, showing that whatever the nature of the external reality, human beings can only perceive them with their own concepts, and thus they always “construct reality”. At this point he refers to Berger and Luckmann, Molotoch and Lester and Tuchman in a footnote where his critique seems obvious: “Even before phenomenological theories became popular, sociologist had shown that the events journalists ostensibly cover are themselves journalistic constructs that frame chronologically and otherwise related phenomena”.48

Gans sees news as information transmitted from sources to the public, whereby journalists, who are both employees of bureaucratic commercial organizations and members of a profession summarize, polish, and change what they receive from their sources in order to make this information suitable for their audience.

It is interesting to clarify the difference Gans sees in his work and perception of routines with that of Molotoch and Lester. Gans states that these two authors have developed a typology that is quite similar to the news, although they distinguish between routines, accidents and scandals. Despite the fact that their typology overlaps in some points with his own, it is based on a very different organizational principle, as they see the news as an intentional behavior of the “promoters” (businesspeople), who Gans calls sources, and distinguish types of news according to whether they are ← 55 | 56 → intentionally routine by the sources, they appear accidentally in spite of efforts to suppress them, or they are placed by the source to create a scandal for another source. Gans’ typology, however, is based on values he sees as implicit in the news, regardless of the sources’ intentions.

It’s worthwhile taking a look at the ideas that underlie Gans’ affirmations and at the influences his work has had. Among press scholars, he is known for his arguments that news should have “multiple perspectives”. For instance, instead of dominant parties that define politics, he sustains there should be multiple parties; instead of dominant ideas, multiple ideas; instead of dominant spokespeople in the news, many more spokespeople, and instead of a dominant frame, multiple frames. His work is full of warnings about the centralization of power and about leaving Americans without much power. He believes that what he calls a multiple perspective approach is vital for journalism and democracy.

Gans’ work shows how journalists’ decisions were conditioned by endless structural factors, both internal and external to the mass media that, in the end, made the professionals, without being too much aware of it, reflect the ideas and values of the powerful. With this in mind, Gans states the need to develop a journalism with multiple perspectives that makes room for a larger number of voices and interests in the mass media, making it possible for a more participative democracy. Gans defends the idea of redistributing access to the news but within the existing news system.

Gans’ work must be understood as a combination of two traditions within the social sciences: the Chicago school of Robert Park and the functionalist tradition of Robert Merton. The influence from Chicago is evident in the participant observation of the communication inside the communities, with journalists under study by the participants. The functional tradition tends to seek practical “functional” answers from the news organizations that help them achieve their goals. Journalists respond to these routines, norms or “structures” that are generalized for other similar environments. Gans finds a balance between the discoveries provided by an in-depth analysis of a few cases and the need to generalize these discoveries to include “journalism” in the broadest sense of the word.

Like any other approach, this one has its own special perspective that must be understood in order to comprehend the discoveries of Gans and his ← 56 | 57 → influence on other thoughts about the news-making process. As the previously studied mass media sociologists have been influenced and adhered to certain academic tendencies, it is interesting to investigate the thinkers that inspired Gans to make participant observation and conclude, from only a few cases, a generalized practice for journalism.

Gans identifies the organization’s sources of power and the stimuli journalists receive by adhering to group norms and following practical considerations. This approach, says Reese, is a contribution to mass media sociology as it inserts a “valuable rectification to the notion of gatekeeper in the studies of White and Breed”49 into the organization’s activities, both functional and in course. Gans’ contribution places the construction of news not on the journalist, editor or owner, but rather on the process through which all parties, routines and agreements of the organization are committed to the creation of news.50

Gans attended the University of Chicago and his work is deeply marked by the tradition of Chicago in several ways. The Chicago school is known for its pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey and William James, a progressive ideology which refers to the potential for human progress, a theory of communication based on symbolic interaction and an eclectic approach to research with emphasis on work in the naturalist field.51 Mass ← 57 | 58 → media sociology implicitly seeks to evaluate how well journalists develop their role in society, says Reese, and the Chicago school has high hopes for the potential democracy of the media.52 The approach of “cases” was typical of Chicago and the study of communities, which Gans formed part of, stem from this tradition. This approach leads to the selection of specific environments, or cases, for a closer study.53

Gans draws on the pragmatic approach and takes its variant of interaction and participation in activities. Hence, his keenness on participant observation, getting involved in journalists’ methods and affirming that the news is a product of these routines. Gans adheres to the idea that participant observation without a prior hypothesis allows to observe that people do not act because of structures but rather because of the meanings they give to events. Gans sees journalists responding to specific social structures of behavior, which Tuchman called the traditional sociological vision, to which has already been referred to extensively.

When Gans was making the first stage of his field observation there was no other book on the subject except for Epstein’s in 1974, but his approach focused more on the economic context than on the work of journalists itself. When he wrote, Gans wanted basically to do two things: firstly, show the principal role that sources play in the shaping of news, perhaps ← 58 | 59 → because the notion that news is what journalists choose to pick up and call news was beginning to emerge, and secondly, to develop a standardized model of newsworthiness that would provide mass media access to left-wing sources, unreported audiences and unconsidered points of view, which he called multiple perspectives.

When Gans started his study there were no models available about how to make mass media sociology, though later on other studies emerged about the organization of news. The only one available was Warren Breed’s study of 1955, as all sociological studies of Tuchman, Schudson, Gitlin and others were carried out around the same time.54 Reese will say that what this analysis of content uncovered provided a useful general perspective and coincided with other mass media sociological studies in which the news was dominated by government officials committed to routines.

Just like the other authors, Gans reaches the conclusion that most of the news is about the well-off, and only about the working class through attacks and other disorders. In a broader sense, those that are “known” are already known or occupy positions that are well known. The unknown, states the analysis, are granted a fifth of the space and includes rioters, victims, rapists and other ordinary people. Hence, most of the news is about government activities but also about protests, crimes, scandals, investigations, disasters, innovations and ceremonies. This is how minority groups reach the news but they must do so through disorder or by violating social order.

Although journalists are seen as connected to sources and the public, the problems discussed in Gans’ work are seen from the point of view of the journalist. The equation of news is based on efficiency and power. These are closely linked but mean that journalists must allot scarce resources in order to produce their product, with all due respect to the structure of power within which they operate. Gans devotes a large chapter to how journalists determine suitability. Most of his argument focuses on the criteria with ← 59 | 60 → which journalism students are taught in order to determine “the value of news”. Government hierarchy is the easiest and least ambiguous place to find news. Journalists follow the State Department’s foreign affairs political line, for instance, because it’s easy.

Gans’ discussion includes an analysis on news sources. He states that journalists use lasting values to judge which stories are “abnormal” and hence more likely to be reported. To satisfy the goal of obtaining the most suitable news, journalists reward those sources that make their work easier: those who have proven to be suitable in the past, that are productive, trustworthy and truthful, have authority and, especially for television, speak well. If the sources have authority, then journalists can “sell” their news much easier to their editors, Gans argues.

He continues to say that journalists avoid pressure from the powerful, especially from government authorities, by using them as sources. Excluding the least powerful, journalists avoid pressure that could result from ventilating sources that could provoke most disagreement. In order to describe the considerations used by journalists, Gans does not directly link specific news content as the other authors did.55 ← 60 | 61 →

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.


Title: The Newsroom