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10. Understanding Media: The Inside Story, Topic Overview
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources





Topic Overview Unit 10

Understanding Media: The Inside Story

Learning Objectives

After completing this session, you will be able to:

  • Explain the value of a free and independent press to the American political system.

  • Describe the relationship between the press and public officials.

  • Describe how the press determines what is news.

This unit demonstrates the role that a free and independent press can and does play in the American political system, serving often as the people's watchdog. But the unit also illustrates that the relationship between the press and public officials is also one of mutual dependence. Finally, this unit explores what constitutes news and how, out of the millions of things that happen each day, only a few are reported.

The American media, sometimes referred to as the fourth estate, can and often do serve as a valuable check on the powers of officials. As Justice Frankfurter once said, "A free press is indispensable to the workings of our democratic society." Frankfurter is alluding to the fact that without accurate information about events, people, and government policy, the public cannot make informed choices as it participates in the democratic process.

Throughout American history the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mean that there are almost no restrictions on the content of news reporting. The Constitution thus provides the opportunity for the press to play an active role in public affairs, even when press reports are inconvenient or embarrassing to public officials. At their best, journalists can hold public leaders accountable to the people. At their worst, irresponsible journalists can distort the news in ways that are damaging to honorable people and legitimate political processes.

While the press has always enjoyed broad freedoms under the Constitution's First Amendment, the style of news gathering and other journalistic norms that guide the press have changed significantly over U.S. history. In our nation's early history, newspapers were overtly partisan tools of key interests in politics, including those that favored states' rights, strong central government, and big business (e.g., banks and railroads). In those early years, politicians often created and controlled their own newspapers to promote their interests. The circulation of these newspapers was necessarily small due to poor transportation and the high production costs.

By the middle to late nineteenth century, newspapers were becoming less partisan and more independent of politicians and organized interests. But because they were increasingly dependent on mass circulation and commercial advertising to generate profit, their reporting style became more sensational, and the stories covered more scandalous. Yellow journalism, which was pioneered by prominent publishers such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, often featured graphics (e.g., comics, pictures, and colors) designed to appeal to the fast-growing immigrant population. Muckraking journalists, including Upton Sinclair, grabbed attention and readership by exposing corruption (real and apparent) among the political and business elite.

During the twentieth century, journalists began to police themselves through the use of professional codes of practice. Reporters were supposed to focus on the key facts, such as who, what, when, and how. With the advent of electronic media, first with radio and then television, news coverage increasingly went beyond basic facts toward more interpretive stories that analyzed the motives of political actors and the potential implications of their actions. In addition, news reporters and broadcasters sometimes became media celebrities who became part of the stories they were covering. The initial appeal of radio was its ability to present live coverage of events. But this role was supplanted by television, which could also present dramatic pictures. As television news grew, radio increasingly became a format for public affairs talk shows.

As their readership dropped, newspapers began adding longer news features that explained or embellished the previous day's events. In general, newspaper circulation has dwindled as more citizens rely exclusively on electronic media for their news. The days of two or more daily newspapers competing for readership in one city are almost gone. Instead, many cities are now served by only one daily newspaper, and often that source is part of a larger, nationally owned chain.

The so-called adversarial culture of the media arose during the 1960s. Events such as the Vietnam War and Watergate contributed to an "us versus them" attitude that often prevails today. People who are in the news complain that reporters are often more interested in casting allegations of wrongdoing and less inclined to follow up as those allegations are rebutted.

Although journalists and government officials often mistrust one another, the relationship between the two primarily remains one of mutual dependence. Political candidates and public officials need the media to get their message across to the public. Journalists, on the other hand, need candidates and public officials as sources of news. These mutual demands lead candidates and public officials to create pseudo-events with good visuals that will meet reporters' needs for interesting stories. And because the costs of investigative reporting are high, news outlets often rely on official government briefings and news conferences for information instead of conducting extensive independent investigations.

Most media organizations in the United States are privately owned. Private ownership contributes to the independence of the media from government controls. But it also means that media owners must attract a sufficient number of viewers and readers. Increasingly, programming decisions take into account the mass appeal of stories and features, and the graphics that accompany them. To increase profits, media owners buy additional media outlets. This trend has contributed to a large consolidation of media sources such as television and radio stations, magazines, and Web sites. Most small, independently owned news stations and newspapers have been bought up by larger media conglomerates such as Knight-Ridder, USA Today, Time Warner, General Electric, Fox Broadcasting, and Disney. Critics charge that consolidation of ownership contributes to a homogenization of news, where most news features echo each other, and often reflect the media and political elite's interpretation of events.

The newest electronic source of news is the Internet, which offers a wide range of news formats from online versions of major newspapers and magazines to newsgroups and gossip sites. To date, the Internet has remained unregulated in terms of the content that individuals or groups can choose to post. Thus, this format may offset the effects of media consolidation of ownership in print and other electronic media formats. The potential downside to no regulation is that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between news that is produced according to journalistic standards (e.g., with verification of sources and source citations) and news that reflects rumor and unsubstantiated facts.

The media's impact on democratic processes is complex and subject to debate. Some critics contend that news reporters are predominantly liberal in their outlook, and some scholarly studies support that contention. At the same time, other studies suggest that news editors and publishers have a more conservative outlook that often reigns in reporters' liberalism. Typically, conservative-leaning consumers of news media think the media is biased toward a liberal viewpoint, while liberal-leaning consumers believe the news is too conservative.


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