Much debate about the reliability of the news, and as to whether it is objective and unbiased or subjective and biased.

McQuail (1992)

  • argues that ‘news’ is not objective or impartial.
  • Events happen, but this does not guarantee that they become news – not all events can be reported because of the sheer number of them.

McQuail argues that news is a socially manufactured product because it is the end result of a selective process.

Gatekeepers, such as editors and journalists, and sometimes proprietors, make choices and judgements about what events are important enough to cover and how to cover them.

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Sociologists point out that the process of news selection is biased because it is dependent upon broader influences:

WILLIAMS (2003) identifies three important influences on media content:

  • the power of those who work in the media - e.g. journalists
  • the day-to-day organisation & routine of media companies
  • the culture of society - the wider norms & values
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WHITE (1950)

  • argued that particular individuals play a significant role in determining which items make the news
  • study was based on the decisions made by one news editior on what should appear on national & international news in a small American newspaper
  • the study suggested that the editors individual prejudices played a significant role in the selection process
  • he acted as a 'GATE KEEPER' - only allowing certain preferred stories to pass through the 'gate' into the news

Later research by WILLIAMS challenged this view:

  • did an investigation into the selections made by a number of news editiors did not find any significant variation in the news items chosen
  • suggests individual media workers decisions are influenced by the organisation in which they work rather than their own preferences
  • reinforced by the fact that news selection involves many people -- no one individual can be held responsible for the final product
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News coverage is shaped by the way television news companies and newspapers are organised:

  • Financial constraints:
    • e.g., sending reporters overseas and booking satellite connections can be very expensive - may result in ‘news’ reports even if very little is actually happening, in order to justify such heavy costs. 
    • more likely to spend money sending reporters to well known/western places - know more about what is happening in N. America & Europe than in S. American & Africa
    • There has been a decline in expensive forms of news coverage such as investigative reporting or foreign affairs coverage because news organisations are cutting costs
  • Time available for a news bulletin or the column space in a newspaper
    • e.g. events are much more likely to be reported if they can be presented in a small amount of time
    • more likely to include a shorter story than a long one if time is limited
  • Deadlines
    • All news included usually happened the day before.
    • Newspapers have a deadline of 10oclock, if event happens after, unlikely to be in tomorrows paper
    • Television news is more immediate, often broadcast as it happens, i.e. rolling news.
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  • Frameworks:
    • to enable news to be understood more easily, stories are put into common frameworks
    • i.e. one story may be put into the framework of a 'barbaric terroist attack' and another similar story as an 'understandable accident'
    • HALL ET AL - argues frameworking is common, powerful groups are able to act as 'Primary Definers' - immediately laying down the view that will be taken on the story (less powerful voices may be heard, but are often drowned out/ridiculed
  • Audiences:
    • the content and style of news programmes is often dependent on the type of audience thought to be watching
    • Newspaper content is designed to the social characteristics of newspaper’s readers, e.g. The Sun is aimed at a working class young readership and so uses simplistic language
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Spencer-Thomas (2008) notes that editors and journalists use the concept of news values to determine the newsworthiness of a particular story and to judge whether it will attract a significant readership or audience.

What is regarded as newsworthy varies according to the type of news outlet.

The following are some of the news values used:

  • DRAMA - excitement, action & entertainment in an event
  • SUPRISE - the unpredictability of an event, out of the ordinary
  • PROXIMITYmore likely to choose a story occured closely as the audience will relate to it
  • PERSONALITIES - royaltly, celebrities etc. - more interesting than ordinary people
  • NUMBERS - the bigger the scale of the event, the better
  • SIGNIFICANCE - social, political, economic or human
  • SEX, SCANDAL & CRIME - popular topics
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Sociologists agree that we need to take account of the influence of both media owners & organisational factors in order to understand the production of media messages.

- in many cases, these influences mean that media coverage reflects the interest of the powerful groups

HOWEVER, this is not always the case:

  • powerful groups do not always speak with one voice, often conflicts over how events should be interpreted
  • in these cases, it is not possible to identify one primary definer of the issue

The media itself sometimes challenge powerful groups:

  • some investigative journalists can become the primary definers, with the powerful groups being obliged to respond to the way the media defines the issue
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What counts as news and the way its reported will reflect the wider culture - the shared norms, values, concerns and beliefs of society 

-E.g. Basketball, Baseball, Ice hockey & American Football dominate sports reporting in the newspapers in the USA, rarely found in British papers

News often reflects strongly held values of the wider culture - E.g. murder is regularly reported/condemned - reflects high value placed on human life

News reporting draws on widely held cultural stereotypes - E.g. SCHUDSON (200) argues news reports representing young black men as problems & women as sex objects reflect shared cultural stereotypes

Organisations attempt to manage the news in order to present themselves in the best light - try to ensure their actions are seen to be in line with the wider cultures norms/values

However: governments & powerful organisations are not always able to portray their actions as fitting the norms & values of society - e.g. it is difficult for governments to control media coverage when accidents such as oil spills occur (McCullagh 2002)

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Most researchers see the construction of news in the following way:

  • News is socially constructed - created within a framework of social relationships & cultural beliefs
  • There is no 'truth out there' which is reported in the news
  • News consists of information that is selected and interpreted on the basis of national norms, values and concerns
  • Those who actually construct the news (editors & journalists) do so within organisational structures & in terms of news values. These define what counts as news
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