D Whitney, Randall Sumpter, Denis McQuail. Handbook of Media Studies. Editor: John D H Downing, Denis McQuail, Philip Schlesinger, Ellen Wartella. Sage Publication. 2004.
The mass media have been studied in reasonably formal and systematic ways for quite a long time, about as long as Western media systems have been composed of “true” mass media as we tend to define them today—as mechanisms for delivering content to large, heterogeneous, dispersed, anonymous audiences that have restricted opportunities to respond to the producers of that content (cf. McQuail, 2000). Because media organizations, industries, and institutions are sites of research—and at various levels of analysis, a variety of methods of studying them have been employed—we first briefly survey the history of systematically studying media, delineate the most frequently employed theoretical models used in the field, summarize an argument for organizing this study by levels of analysis, and then return to catalogue the methods with some research exemplars for each. We should note at the outset, however, that even though this is a chapter on research methods in studying media organizations and institutions, no methods that we know of are unique or peculiar to the study of them, and hence researchers seeking technical advice on methods should also consult more standard texts on research methodology.
The Advent of Media Sociology
The primary purpose of studying media is to understand why media organizations, a specific medium, or the mass media institution produces the kinds of content it does. The birth of “media sociology,” however, around the turn of the past century, was not an academic enterprise but was in response to both practical and social problems engendered by the rise of mass commercial media. On the business side, a nascent national advertising industry was eager to have credible circulation data on the rapidly expanding metropolitan press: The U.S. newspapers’ Audit Bureau of Circulation dates from 1914, and “commercial research,” such as magazine readership questionnaire studies, dates from 1911 (Beniger, 1986, p. 20). As early as 1880, N. W. Ayer & Son, the first national advertising firm in the United States, was publishing a national newspaper directory with independently gathered circulation data on the nation’s newspapers and magazines.
Moreover, the rapid industrialization of newspaper production in Europe and the United States during the late 19th century triggered the systematic, if not yet scientific, study of media institutions as well. Sumpter (2001) notes that in response to public controversy over a “new journalism” that was commercial, sensational, and popular, the first content analyses were undertaken to document the actual content of the mass newspapers. In 1893, John Gilmer Speed, who had been managing editor of the New York World before its conversion to the “new journalism” formula, conducted the first recorded quantitative content analysis of a daily newspaper (Berelson, 1952/1971; Fenton, 1910; Krippendorff, 1980). Quantitative content analyses had been used before by Europeans to evaluate religious hymns and by Americans to analyze political documents and poetry (Kovring, 1954-1955; Sherman, 1888, 1893. Speed, an amateur student of poetry and a relative of Keats, may have been aware of these earlier applications.
Speed’s study, published in Forum magazine, compared four New York dailies—the Times, Tribune, Sun, and World—published on April 17, 1881, and April 16, 1893. Speed assigned the content of the newspapers to 13 categories, but he provided little explanation for how his classification system worked. Speed also used a unit of analysis, the newspaper column, which limited his ability to compare the newspapers. The World, for instance, employed a seven-column page format in 1881 but switched to eight by 1893. The Tribune used six columns; the Times and Sun used seven. Speed reported two major findings. First, the newspapers’ size had nearly tripled since the 10-page average for the 1881 date. Second, “gossip,” “scandal,” and other sensational material dominated the additional columns. Crime news, which had not been used in 1881, according to Speed’s coding system, now appeared in all but the Sun. Speed concluded that readers had not benefited from the newspaper expansion. Instead, he wrote, they had been harmed because news of “serious happenings” needed by readers to function in an urban society had been displaced by lesser stories that promoted “disjointed thinking” (Speed, 1893, p. 711).
A cluster of Progressive Era scholars adapted Speed’s methodology to their studies of the “yellow” and “tabloid” press (Sumpter, 2001). Notable were civic reformer Delos Franklin Wilcox (1900), who undertook a massive content analysis of 240 English- and foreign-language dailies published during 1898 and 1899 in several major U.S. cities. Wilcox clearly explained how he derived his content categories. From the large study group, Wilcox selected 15 newspapers classified by “general appearance and reputation” (p. 77) as “yellow” dailies and 15 others classified in the same manner as “conservative” publications. He examined the newspapers within each group to determine what types of content they shared. “Yellow” newspapers, he found, commonly used crime and vice news, illustrations, and help-wanted, medical, and self-advertisements. “Conservative” dailies published political news, business news, letters and exchanges, and miscellaneous advertisements. Wilcox then used this eight-category system to code newspaper columns. In the process, he learned that increases in circulation accompany increases in sensational content. Mathews (1910) and Tenney (1912) could not exactly replicate Wilcox’s findings, and both pointed to coding and definitional problems as possible explanations. Finally, Frances Fenton of the University of Chicago questioned the basic assumption that sensational content produced negative reader effects. Proof of this cause-and-effect linkage must be provided, and such a demonstration required more than a simple content analysis, she argued in a two-part study published in the American Journal of Sociology (Fenton, 1910, 1911). To test the linkage assumption, Fenton used several methods, including a content analysis of Chicago, New York, and Denver daily newspapers; questionnaires sent to prison and reformatory officials, juvenile court judges, and probation officers; reviews of court records; and interviews with criminal justice workers. The content analysis alone involved the coding of more than 10,000 individual copies of newspapers for what Fenton (1911) called “antisocial” material (p. 542). She concluded that newspapers contribute to antisocial activity because (a) publishers and editors distort or suppress facts when their publication would harm advertisers, and (b) readers who would not normally buy a newspaper do so when news treatments include “featuring, doctoring, and faking” (Fenton, 1911, p. 563).
However, early studies also had proceeded without a theoretically informed basis for predicting how the media might interact with other social institutions. Until those problems were addressed, the study of news remained stunted. Although Robert Ezra Park’s ethnographic studies of the press are important, his greatest contributions perhaps are found in the scholarly essays that he devoted to the theoretical problems of media studies (Park, 1940). In them, Park worked out the framework for incorporating news into the sociology of knowledge and for studying the media as an institution. These contributions earned Park a reputation as the founder of media sociology (Frazier & Gaziano, 1979; Reese & Ballinger, 2001).
Park classified news as the oldest form of knowledge. The sociology of knowledge is concerned with the “conditions under which different kinds of knowledge arise and what are the functions of each,” Park wrote (1940, p. 682). News fell somewhere on a continuum stretching between formal, systematic knowledge, such as that derived from the natural sciences, and unsystematic knowledge, such as common sense. News’s qualities, however, are so transient that its position on this continuum shifts. “News remains news only until it has reached the persons for whom it has ‘news interest.’ Once published and its significance recognized, what was news becomes history,” Park concluded (p. 676). News, or at least the categories into which it fits, is routine, but the specific incidents reported in the newspapers are unexpected:
The events that have made news in the past, as in the present, are actually the expected things. They are characteristically simple and commonplace matters, like births and deaths, weddings and funerals, the conditions of the crops and of business, war, politics, and the weather. These are the expected things, but they are at the same time the unpredictable things. They are the incidents and chances that turn up in the game of life. (Park, 1940, p. 680)
Sharing news or communicating it, Park believed, balances the competitive forces found in society. Sharing news not only integrates society by orienting public attention (Park, 1940) but also transmits the “life history” and traditions of other social institutions and groups (Park, 1938). News per se is both a method of cultural diffusion and acculturation. As news spreads, the meaning of cultural artifacts, which can be different in different places, begins to converge and acculturation follows, Park wrote (1938), but many “selection” rules apparently govern this diffusion-acculturation dynamic because some news items travel farther than others. The more interesting and intelligible that news is, the farther it theoretically should travel, but this relationship is conditional. As social tensions increase, Park observed, public interest narrows, and the “range of events to which the public will respond is limited. The circulation of news is limited; discussion ceases, and the certainty of action of some sort increases” (Park, 1940, p. 684).
Park (1923, 1927) compared the institutional history of newspapers to the natural history of biological species. To survive the process of “natural selection,” a newspaper needed to win the competition with other newspapers for readers, to interact successfully with other social institutions, and to provide social control for large population units in the same manner that gossip and public opinion do in villages or small towns. Park believed newspapers had very specific influences on other institutions. For instance, Sunday newspapers and their advertising columns made the creation of department stores possible (Park, 1923, 1927). By expanding the definition of news to attract more readers, newspapers also increased their political power because “news rather than the editorial” makes opinion in a democracy (Park, 1941, p. 4).
Park and academic “muckrakers” such as Fenton made important contributions to formalizing media studies, but they mainly viewed editors and reporters as passive conduits for the transmission of news (Frazier & Gaziano, 1979). They had little interest in how news workers shaped the news or in how news institutions, readers, and sources affected their decisions. By the late 1930s, however, researchers were beginning to ask those questions, often with multiple tools such as those employed by Fenton. Their work, which often sought answers at several levels of analysis, deflected the institutional study of the media into the channel it followed for the rest of the 20th century. At the same time, too, research was broadening out: Although important contributions continued to come from sociology and social psychology, schools of journalism were for the first time contributing to media sociology research. Five of these post-1930 studies have particular significance. They are Harvard social psychologist Gordon Allport’s (Allport & Faden, 1940) use of a content analysis of eight Boston newspapers and of Gallup poll data to develop the rules of “newspaper psychology”; Leo C. Rosten’s 1935-1936 survey study of Washington correspondents (Rosten, 1937/1974); Francis Prugger’s (1941) extensive investigation of the backgrounds, attitudes, and opinions of reporters at a Midwest daily newspaper; Charles E. Swanson’s (1949) “control” analysis of news workers and their readers in a one-newspaper town; and David Manning White’s (1950) gatekeeper study of a small daily’s wire editor.
Allport and his research associate, Janet M. Faden, hoped their study would discover the rules governing the psychological partnership between news workers and readers. Because their general research interest was public opinion formation, Allport and Faden (1940) selected for study the newspaper coverage of the 1939 congressional debate about the Neutrality Act. Their content analysis included all news stories, opinion columns, editorials, and letters to the editor published on the issue between September 1, 1939, and November 9, 1939. Items were coded for orientation (pro-, anti-, neutral, or ambivalent on repeal of the act) and news coloring (whether or not the coder detected the intrusion of the reporter’s or editor’s personal views). In all, the study involved the analysis of 1,149 news items, 168 editorials, 483 letters to the editor, and an unspecified number of columns. The resulting data suggested to Allport and Faden the following “tentative” psychological principles: (a) News workers “skeletonize” public policy stories to simplify the issues and to highlight conflict, presumably because readers find fuller accounts “confusing and fatiguing” (p. 690). (b) The physical newspaper and its contents represent a highly structured and formalized “stimulus field.” Editorial policy, the method of selecting letters to the editor, news coloration, and newspaper design are among the stimuli. (c) Based on a comparison of editorials with letters to the editors, the investigators concluded that editors demonstrate more emotional restraint than readers do. (d) Intensity of public interest in an issue, as measured by the space devoted to it in the newspaper, varies with time. Opinion polls confirmed this periodicity. (e) The more tension an issue causes in readers, the faster readers will seek relief.
Allport and Faden’s (1940) study inferred news worker and audience behavior from content and poll data. Prugger, Swanson, and White—all working in mid-western U.S. journalism schools—wanted to describe news worker attitudes and opinions, their interactions with others, and the processes that produced content. Prugger hoped to learn more about the sources of news worker opinions and their beliefs about news work. To do that, Prugger (1941, p. 231) used questionnaires and interviews in what he claimed was the first study of the news personnel of a single newspaper, the 260,000 daily circulation Milwaukee Journal. Prugger’s reporters were often the oldest or the only child in a middle-class family. More than half held college degrees, often in journalism, but they did not believe a journalism degree should be a prerequisite for a news career. Most were 40-year-old social loners who preferred hobbies such as gardening or photography and who seldom joined clubs or political organizations other than the local press club. Unlike similar but later multisite or highly detailed studies (Breed, 1955a, 1955b; Stark, 1964), Prugger found no trace of social control in the newsroom, perhaps because the Journal’s workers generally were content and believed their newspaper had a superior record for fair and unbiased reporting. At any rate, they were certain that policy considerations never influenced how the Journalreported the news.
Rosten’s (1937/1974) book, based on research conducted when he was a University of Chicago graduate student, was the result of interviews with 127 Washington correspondents for U.S. newspapers, and it covered a wide range of demographic and attitudinal items; it is widely remembered today only because a majority of his respondents said both that they knew how their editors wanted stories slanted and that they “had had stories played down, cut, or killed for ‘policy’ reasons” (p. 352). This landmark work has been replicated at least twice in the United States, where less and less direct editorial interference was found (Hess, 1981; Rivers, 1962), and in Britain’s Westminster lobby (Tunstall, 1970). Prugger’s (1941) study produced a snapshot of the reporters, not a description of the news-making process. Swanson (1949) used a variety of methods, including newsroom observation, content analysis, interviews, and questionnaires to look for the “control” process in news work at an unidentified midwestern newspaper he called the Midcity Daily. Swanson did the fieldwork for his newspaper ethnography between October 1946 and March 1948. To draw a complete picture, Swanson included editors in his analysis. Swanson found his news workers to be even more homogeneous than those studied by Prugger; however, the Midcity Daily’s news workers believed a variety of forces controlled and shaped what was news. Swanson described them as being aware that they worked at “the crossroads among the pressure groups and powerholders” (p. 22) in Midcity. The editor ticked off the conflicting forces: liberals versus conservatives, labor unions versus management, a variety of civic organizations seeking publicity for their activities, religious denominations, political partisans, and unhappy advertisers. In the face of these conflicting demands, the editor and 30-member news staff told Swanson that they tried to function as a cooperative, integrative force for their community. When they were asked to rank traditional journalism values, the reporters ranked the 10th most important function as keeping “the people cooperating so they may discuss the issues” (p. 23). This function ranked right after reporting the day’s events “without fear or favor to any individual or group” (p. 23). The news staff acknowledged they shared the power to decide what’s news with city residents, the publisher, and business community. Later studies, particularly those that employed “thick” ethnographic descriptions, since have identified other participants in this news negotiation (Darnton, 1975; Gans, 1979; Tuchman, 1978). Although they were not asked to slant the news, the Midcity reporters admitted their stories were sometimes spiked for policy reasons. The reporters, however, felt free to criticize or praise the newspaper’s performance.
If “media sociology” can be traced back to Robert Ezra Park, then the last of our “pioneering” research likewise deserves special attention—David Manning White’s (1950) “gatekeeper” study of “Mr. Gates,” the telegraph editor at a small daily newspaper.7 White adopted a novel approach for mapping these news selection influences. In addition to observing the editor at work, interviewing him both daily and at the end of his fieldwork, and moreover performing a content analysis both of wire stories published and those that were rejected during a 1-week period by the newspaper, White also convinced “Mr. Gates” to annotate the rejected stories with the reasons why he spiked them. Many of the rejected stories were eliminated because of space, proximity, or redundancy issues; Mr. Gates eliminated a smaller group for subjective reasons (p. 387). White believed the latter finding indicated Mr. Gates’s experiences and attitudes governed both the selection and rejection of news stories. An aggressive multisite and multimethod extension of the Mr. Gates study by Walter Gieber (1956) proved that White had overgeneralized. Gieber used content analyses, ethnographic fieldwork, interviews, an experiment, and self-reports to study wire editors at 16 afternoon dailies in Wisconsin. His wire editors reported that they exercised minimal news judgment in their story selections because of deadline pressures. Gieber’s series of content analyses revealed instead that the wire editors used “a statistically ‘good sample’ of wire traffic” (p. 430).
The White (1950) and Gieber (1956) studies are important ones for two reasons. First, the research allows the analyst simultaneously to make empirical statements at several levels of analysis—the individual, the organizational, and, in the Gieber study, the industrial. Because “Mr. Gates” and his counterparts routinely determined, without consultation with others in the organization, what the national and international news content of their papers would be on a given day, individual and organizational behavior are one and the same. When Gieber observed a strong degree of uniformity of behavior across newspapers, he allowed generalization to the industrial level as well. The two studies, moreover, illustrated the strong desirability of using multiple methods to analyze news worker behavior, and they also stimulated examinations of the original Mr. Gates (Bleske, 1991/1997; Snider, 1967) and the gatekeeper roles of reporters and sources (Gieber, 1960-1961; Gieber & Johnson, 1961; Judd, 1961). Those case studies relied on ethnographic observation, focused interviews, and questionnaires, not quantitative content analysis.
In the United States, media sociology in the period of the 1950s and 1960s increasingly became the province of researchers in schools of journalism. As others (cf. Delia, 1987; Dennis & Wartella, 1996; McQuail, 2000) have noted, the disciplinary base of media studies, largely in professional schools, expanded as other disciplines’ interests in media studies contracted, due in large part to widespread perceptions of limited or minimal effects of media messages. This was likewise true in media sociology, and in 1972, the sociologist Herbert Gans (1972) wrote of a “famine” in mass communication research, especially in what he called “institutional” studies—that is, research on the production of news and culture. As noted elsewhere (Whitney & Ettema, 1992, 2003), by the end of the 1970s, a rebirth of media sociology in the United States had occurred, influenced by fresh theoretical influences from Europe and featuring research conducted generally at higher levels of analysis than in the pioneering studies. The relatively recent past has produced sufficiently large numbers of studies for two excellent collections of research spanning a variety of research methods and analytical levels to be published: Dan Berkowitz’s (1997) Social Meanings of News and Howard Tumber’s (2000) News: A Reader.
Levels of Analysis and Theoretical Orientations in Media Sociology
The relatively recent past, too, has popularized the notion that it is practically and theoretically useful to subdivide media sociology—indeed, communication sciences more broadly (cf. Chaffee & Berger, 1987)—into “levels of analysis.” At its most basic level of analysis, the production of mass-mediated symbol systems is the work of individuals or small groups. At a “higher” level, however, it is the product of complex organizations; at still another, higher level, it reflects the legal, economic, and other institutional arrangements of industry systems. Shoemaker and Reese (1996) speak of “hierarchies of influence” and identify five levels: individual, media routines, organizational, extra-media, and ideological. As they (see also Dimmick & Coit, 1982; Ettema & Whitney, 1987; McManus, 1994) note, the processes at each level may be difficult to disentangle from the others, and thus the research conducted at each level poses distinctive questions about the production of media content; moreover, it is clear that in some “grand narrative” sense, complete explanations for why content looks as it does require attention to all levels in this hierarchy. A full review of mass communicator studies at each level is beyond the scope of this chapter, but several reviews organized by level of analysis are available (see, e.g., Ettema & Whitney, 1987; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Whitney & Ettema, 2003).
Separate levels of analysis, too, generally involve differing theoretical orientations. In a literature review on the production of news, Schudson (1989) delineated three perspectives that inform research not only on news but other media content as well. Reflecting their disciplinary origins, he labeled them sociological, political economic, and culturological. Although not mutually exclusive, each perspective is grounded in a distinct tradition with its own assumptions about the social world and its methods for studying that world. The taxonomy usefully registers the increased theoretic diversity of communicator studies in the past few decades.
The sociological perspective in Schudson’s (1989) taxonomy includes most of the studies cited above, as well as many of the “routines” and organizational behavior studies to be discussed below; in the recent past, too, it has come to embody a “social constructionist” (cf. McQuail, 2000; Scheufele, 1999) model that has given rise to a construct of framing. The majority of recent framing studies are studies of audience effects (i.e., that frames implicit in media content are learned by audiences) and of journalists’ and other media creators’ frames. Sometimes, these are taken as independent variables (cf. Gitlin, 1980, 1983; McLeod & Hertog, 1992), sometimes as dependent variables (Durham, 1998, 2001), or, frequently, as both, as communicators’ frames are translated into content, which then frames future content that they and others produce.
We will pay scant attention to the political economic orientation here because it is the exclusive focus of Janet Wasko’s chapter (see Chapter 15, this volume). It must be noted, however (see also Whitney & Ettema, 2003), that there is considerable conceptual overlap between the “ideological” level in Shoemaker and Reese’s (1996) schema and the political economic work influenced by the British cultural studies tradition following, for example, Stuart Hall’s (1980) classic “encoding-decoding” essay.
Schudson (1989), however, treats “culturological” theorization separately. Within media studies, of course, this realm of research is usually identified with various cultural studies traditions that privilege the text-audience nexus. However, even here there are two streams of research—that influenced by narrative theory and that flowing, again, from British cultural studies. From the latter perspective, Richard Hoggart, in his introduction to the Glasgow University Media Group’s (1976) path-breaking Bad News, pointed to four mass communicator filtering processes that shaped television news (and, we would argue by extension, most mass communicated content)—namely, those that related to the structural constraints of technology, time, resources, and geography; communicators’ “news values”; medium-specific “television values”; and, finally and most important,
the cultural air we breathe, the whole ideological atmosphere of our society, which tells us that some things can be said and others had best not be said. It is that whole and almost unconscious pressure towards implicitly affirming the status quo, towards confirming the “ordinary man” in his existing attitudes, towards discouraging refusals to conform, that atmosphere which comes off the morning radio news-and-chat programmes as much as from the whole pattern of reader-visual background-and-words which is the context of television news. (Glasgow University Media Group, 1976, p. x, as cited in Eldridge, 1995, p. 8)
From such a perspective, then, cultural milieu serves as the overarching determinant of content. Below, we will offer several research exemplars from this tradition.
The narrative theory tradition has likewise recently animated communicator studies, and a narrative theory approach has been applied to nonfictional as well as to fictional content. That news stories are just that—stories—was poignantly argued by Princeton historian Robert Darnton (1975), a former newspaper reporter from a noted family of journalists. Recalling his summer job on the police beat, Darnton related an account of a dull day in which he found himself with no better item to write than a couple of paragraphs on a boy’s stolen bicycle. A veteran competitor-colleague derisively, but apparently with some pity, typed out a different version. The young Darnton then phoned the boy’s father with a few pertinent questions; for now he knew he had a story to tell. “Soon I had enough details to fit the new pattern of the story,” he remembered. “I rewrote it in the new style, and it appeared the next day in a special box, above the fold, on the front page” (Darnton, 1975, p. 190). He got his first byline. Darnton concluded that facts and stories are mutually constituted: Although a story requires facts for its existence, the facts demand a story for theirs. In other words, a news story is, indeed, assembled from available and relevant facts, but those facts become available only if journalists know how to locate them, and those facts attain relevance only when the writer knows what to make of them. It is a story selected from a culturally given repertoire, Darnton argued. To this, Ettema and Glasser (1998) add, “The story lines that help to constitute the facts remain submerged in the unexamined common sense of the culture” (p. 152).
From this vantage, Schudson (1995) has famously noted,
The power of the media lies not only (and not even primarily) in its power to declare things to be true, but in its power to provide the forms in which the declarations appear. News in a newspaper or on television has a relationship to the “real world” not only in content but in form; that is, in the way the world is incorporated into unquestioned and unnoticed conventions of narration, and then transfigured, no longer a subject for discussion but a premise of any conversation at all. (p. 54)
An example of how journalists make sense of particular kinds of occurrences by invoking particular kinds of stories is Vincent, Crow, and Davis’s (1989) analysis of the standardized story line in the network television news coverage of major airliner crashes. For journalists, such crashes are “the archetypal disaster of the technological age” and evoke stories with the theme of technology defeated by fate. There may be technical answers as to what happened, of course, but there will always be an eternal mystery (see also Frank Durham’s 1998 treatment of the journalists’ struggle to find a “cause” for the crash of TWA Flight 800). “The ever-present black box of airline stories is the perfect visual condensation of the fate versus technology conflict,” Vincent et al. argued (p. 16). “But the whole concept of a ‘black box’ is invested with mystery and godlike omniscience, and the black box often refuses to tell what it knows.” Whatever technical answers the authorities may eventually offer can never really resolve the eternal question: why? We can only listen in reverence and terror as the most ancient of stories must be told once again, as here in the form of an NBC report of an air crash in New Orleans:
Arthur Cunnings of Howell, Michigan, was in San Diego for the funeral of his son who was killed in a motorcycle accident there. His two daughters and three grandchildren were driving to that funeral from Florida when their car broke down Friday. So they got on an airplane in New Orleans: Pan Am Flight 759. In a week, Mr. Cunnings lost three children and three grandchildren. He was able to say today, “I cannot describe the sorrow.” (Vincent et al., 1989, p. 16)
For other recent treatments of news myth, see Ettema and Glasser (1998), Bird and Dardenne (1988), Cornfield (1988), and Lule (1995, 2001). For parallel treatments of news as ritual, in addition to James Carey’s celebrated 1989 statement of the idea, see Cazeneuve (1974) and Elliot (1972).
As James Ettema (2003) has noted,
Studies of news-as-narrative offer insight not only into the eternal question of life, they offer insight into the eternal question of journalism: what is news? The list of attributes or “news values” that journalists supposedly consider when judging newsworthiness typically includes the presence of conflictual or unexpected events, the prominence of those involved in the events, and the degree of impact on readers and viewers. In addition, the proximity of the events to the audience and the timeliness of the report are considerations in a story’s newsworthiness. (quoted in Whitney & Ettema, 2003)
It is clear, however, that any textbook list of story attributes just cannot explain the diverse array of topics that constitute the news. What, then, does the press cover? Romano’s (1986) tongue-in-cheek answer was “box scores, beauty pageants, press conferences, Richard Nixon and so on” (p. 42). Though Romano was teasing us, he went on to make a point that serves as a useful point of departure for any attempt to understand how journalists decide what is news. “The principles that govern those decisions, while rational, aren’t scientific or logically compelling,” he argued. “No one need accept them the way one must accept the rules of gravity” (p. 42). News stories, in other words, do not correspond to the reality of human affairs in the way that theories of physics, presumably, correspond to the reality of quarks and quasars. We should not expect elegant and timeless theories that can predict the sorts of occurrences that will become news. We should not even expect unambiguous criteria for recognizing news when we see it. Knowing what is news is partly just a matter of knowing what has always been news—politics, disasters, and so on—and, as Darnton (1975) wryly showed, it is partly a matter of knowing a good story when one hears it.
In brief, research at the individual level focuses on the characteristics (e.g., gender, ethnicity, attitudes, political or ideological biases, practices) of individual communicators or homogeneous small groups of communicators to predict or to explain continuities in content. For example, in concluding his study of “Mr. Gates,” David Manning White (1950) observed (with real or feigned shock and regret, it might be added),
Through studying his overt reasons for rejecting news stories from the press associations, we see how highly subjective, how based on the “gatekeeper’s” own set of experiences, attitudes and expectations the communication of “news” really is. (p. 350)
Both subsequent reinterpretations of White’s own data (Hirsch, 1977; McCombs & Shaw, 1977) and a considerable amount of later research have called this conclusion into question: As noted above, environmental constraints, routines, and the strong similarities between news coming into the editors’ newsrooms and that which they process and then publish strongly suggest that other factors at higher levels of analysis exert stronger and more consistent influences on content (see also D’Alessio & Allen, 2000; Gans, 1979, 1985; Schudson, 1995; Shoemaker, Eichholz, Kim, & Wrigley, 2001).
At the next level of analysis up, the organizational, both different theories and different methods might be appropriate, and at still higher levels, still others might be. However, let us move now to examine a series of research studies that might be summarized under the heading of “manufacturing” news.
The Manufacture of News: Key Themes
Research into news production in the sociological tradition, starting in the 1960s, has elaborated a number of tendencies that are encapsulated in the idea of news as a manufactured product (see Cohen & Young, 1973). Fishman (1980) titled his ethnographic study of news making Manufacturing the News. Bantz, McCorkle, and Baade (1980) reflected the same tradition of work by using the title “The News Factory” for their study of the television newsroom, arguing that a “factory model is a heuristic model for how work was accomplished.” The shared notion guiding or emerging from research into news production (see also Berkowitz, 1997; Schlesinger, 1988) has been that news is largely made according to certain preestablished specifications as to not only form and composition but also content. News, as many have demonstrated, is a “construction of reality” rather than a picture of reality. This is not in itself surprising given the need to meet an inexhaustible and vast demand for such a staple media commodity, but it does sit oddly with conventional notions that contents are in some sense novel and unexpected and are also responses in the form of reports of unexpected events, claiming to be true reflections of reality. Lippmann (1922) had long before recognized the character of news as standardized, routinely produced, and made to order according to certain laid-down routines for finding and processing raw events from the public record. The main elements supporting the choice of a “factory model” of news production can be summarized under the following set of headings.
Following the assembly line image chosen by Bantz et al. (1980), the first stage of the manufacturing process is that of assembling the raw material for conversion into the typical contents of a newspaper or news bulletin. Several strategies have been described in research for organizing the search for material, although the underlying basis is typically laid down by a fixed allocation of resources to different topic areas and “news beats”—the places where “news events” typically become visible. There are places where this happens, and there are people around whom it happens, the people who are conventionally newsworthy. The places include law courts, police and military headquarters, parliaments, stock markets, and sport stadiums. The people include leading politicians, established celebrities of all kinds, prominent criminals or their victims, and so forth.
News discovery can also be accounted for according to the main sources of information about events that might be made into “news.” These include news agency material (perhaps the most important single source of readymade “news”); other news media that have appeared within the production cycle of the news organization in question; various databases, now including the Internet; incoming press releases from self-interested parties (a very large and productive body of material); routine material gleaned by the organizations’ in-house reporters, following standard beats; and the results of intensive investigative activity by own correspondents and reporters (not rare but limited in overall yield). Many journalists also maintain their own networks of contacts or sources that can provide them with ready material, with some chance of originality in detail, but also likely to cover the same ground in the same stereotyped way as others (Elliott, 1972; Reese, 1991).
McManus (1994) classified the various discovery strategies along a continuum of “activity level.” In his own study of a television news station, he classified three quarters of news used as “passively discovered”; 20% came from moderately active discovery and only 5% from highly active means. The key to this distribution is the fact that the more active the search, the more time or money it is likely to cost, and commercial news organizations typically seek to minimize costs in relation to audience attracted. He would call this the market model rather than factory model, but there is an overlap between the two.
Links to Sources
One key to solving the problem of a constant supply of raw material for processing as news is to have dependable sources, but this can also mean having ties of interdependence with sources and opening the way to collaboration. An early study by Gieber and Johnson (1961) of relations between city journalists and local government officials reported a degree of assimilation between the interests of the two roles. They cooperated for mutual advantage rather than for the good of the readers and contrary to the theoretical independent informative and watchdog role of the press. Ericson, Baranek, and Chan (1989) refer to a special category of “source media” whose main activity is to supply journalists with what they are looking for on behalf of various source organizations that often have an interest in the news. The media concerned consist of press conferences, press releases, public relations, and so on. The organizations that supply news are not usually disinterested. Often, they consist of government officials, the police and other authorities or businesses, lobby groups, and special interests. The unwritten rules of journalistic objectivity seem to support such tendencies because “facts” often have to be validated as such by a reliable and authoritative source, partly to protect the news medium from charges of inaccuracy or bias (Tuchman, 1973).
Schlesinger and Tumber (1994) pursued this theme in their detailed study of the interactions with news media, and each other, among British criminal justice professionals, policymakers, and advocacy groups as sources of law-and-order news. Evidence from several countries has testified to the high proportion of material that is actually published as news that originates in self-interested sources or as public relations (PR). Herbert Gans, in his 1979 study of news content on national TV and news magazines, found three quarters to come from government sources. This is higher than most other findings suggest, but typically at least half of news originates in this way. The sources most successful at getting their “news” into the news are not representative of the community. According to Gans, again, these sources are likely to be powerful, well resourced, and well organized. They are likely to be “authoritative” as well as efficient, often with an official status or recognized community power. Gandy (1982) has charted the extent to which powerful interest groups provide the media in effect with “information subsidies” that also help their own causes. Regular access tends to be given on TV and in the press to the same relatively narrow circle of pundits and celebrities, leading to a relatively narrow consensus of information and perspectives on national media (Reese, Gandy, & Grant, 2001).
Molotch and Lester (1974) referred to those in a position to “make news” as having “habitual access.” In their terms, they are also “event promoters” because they are sometimes in a position to cause events to happen in a way that will attract a predictable degree and type of coverage. This is in line with the notion of “pseudo-events,” introduced originally in the context of political campaigning. Essentially, these are staged happenings, usually involving prominent and “newsworthy” figures. There are several implications of the tendencies and practices described. One, it confirms that much of the news flow is indeed planned and, to that extent, not really “news.” Second, the sources are not at all balanced in terms of public interest. Third, the established hierarchy or power and status are likely to be confirmed rather than challenged.
Time as a Factor in News Making
By definition, news is timely, and news media operate on fixed time schedules of production, with a cycle that may be one a week, a day, every few hours, or even more or less continuously. News production and news itself have to fit within the time available, with consequences for the kind of event that figures in the news and is most likely to have news value. According to Tuchman’s (1978) study of news making, journalists and editors facilitate the allocation of their resources by typifying news events according to a certain time scale. They distinguish between events in terms of their degree of expectedness or prescheduling, ranging from those long predicted (such as an election) to the completely unexpected, that occur as the news is in its final moments of assembly. There is a third more or less “timeless” category consisting of “soft news” stories that are not tied to any particular schedule and can be saved up or used at will. Another dimension is news type, in which time is also a key component. A general category is of “hard news,” which is always scheduled, with three subcategories: “spot news” (isolated and recently completed events), developing news (incomplete and ongoing news events), and continuing news (where stories are added to a sequence following a particular event or theme).
Preplanned events make up a large part of routine news coverage, but preplanning can have unexpected and undesirable consequences, from the point of view of accuracy and truth. Where news events are scheduled, they are also usually provided with a preexisting definition or frame of interpretation (see below) that the actual event may not confirm. The result can either be a distortion of events or disorganized reporting. A classic study by Lang and Lang (1953) described the news coverage of General MacArthur returning from the Korean War in 1951 as portraying a hero’s welcome, when to direct observers it appeared low key and ambiguous in tone. Halloran, Murdock, and Elliott (1970) used the example as a basis for studying the reporting of an antiwar rally in 1968, showing that reported plans for violent conflict led to a failure to depict the relatively peaceful character of the event.
Time matters in other ways, especially in television news bulletins, where it is usually extremely limited and there is intense debate and competition over allocation amongst the journalists concerned and also amongst those affected by the news, especially political sources, which take relative time allocation as an indicator of favor of bias. Schlesinger (1988) refers to a “stopwatch culture” governing television news in the United Kingdom, with decisions about timing being seen as an essential aspect of professionalism. The general obsession with time in all media has a number of consequences. One is to reduce the meaningfulness of news when points have to be made in the form of “sound bites,” which grow ever shorter. Another is the fact that items may lose a place in the news forever, if they do not find a time slot while they are immediately current. Third, it gives an extra advantage to well-placed sources who can time their own interventions and events to maximize the chance to gain access.
According to Entman (1993), framing is about selection and salience. It refers to the process by which journalists select topics, define the underlying issue, and interpret causes and effects. A frame is essentially a way of organizing otherwise fragmentary pieces of information in a thematic way that facilitates news gathering, news production, and, in principle at least, audience comprehension and learning. However, at this last stage, framing is more likely to be a source of bias and miscomprehension. A news frame has affinities with more familiar notions of news “peg” or “angle” or “theme,” and it helps to connect apparently similar events into a connected whole. Tuchman (1978) likened a news frame to the “window” through which newspeople viewed and composed their picture of the world. Fishman (1978) used a similar idea of thematization in describing the “construction” of a crime wave in New York. Frames, according to Scheufele (1999), can be understood as either causes for the way issues are formulated or as consequences. Some writers would suggest that the professional rules of objective journalism themselves constitute frames; others, that media frames add to what can be observed and reported accurately and often introduce value judgments into reporting. It could also be argued that by establishing connections with values, they also establish the relevance of factual reporting and do help to make “news” more comprehensible and memorable. The problem remains, however, of reconciling framing with the pretence of objectivity.
Entman (1991) showed how two similar incidents, the shooting down of a Korean airliner by the Soviet forces and the downing of an Iranian airliner by the U.S. Navy, were framed in quite different ways, leading to quite different evaluative conclusions. The first incident was often framed as an unwarranted attack, an act of war, in the context of the ongoing cold war. The Iranian case was treated as an unfortunate accident and a tragedy, without any negative reflection on the motives or responsibility of the perpetrators. The example illustrates the fact that “frames” are rarely neutral or value free, not chosen by chance. They open the way to manipulation of news by interested parties and indeed are often used in this way, whenever a choice of frames is available. The research example cited above of reporting of political demonstrations in London against the Vietnam War (Halloran et al., 1970) showed media efforts, in line with the authorities, to frame the protest events as both violent and the work of foreign agitators. The struggle for power over media is often conducted initially as a struggle over definitions of events.
The single largest influence on the production of news is probably that of money in one way or another (Bagdikian, 2000; Ettema & Whitney, 1994), especially where news organizations have a primary goal of making money. Even when that is not the case (there are nonprofit media and publicly owned news services), the high costs of modern news production and distribution introduce economic criteria at every stage, from selection to distribution. News that meets professional standards of originality and novelty value, as well as embodying production and presentation values, is bound to be expensive, not only because of the necessary costs but also because of market values under competitive conditions. This especially applies to investigative and other forms of depth reporting. There is no shortage of supply of low-cost content from agencies or free content from self-interested suppliers to fill space, but to be first and to be original with news almost always requires an organization to use its own well-qualified employees at all stages of the news process. It is the recovery of costs of expensive news that leads to strong influences on news content. If the main source of revenue is the paying reader, viewer, or listener, the audience has to be large or, if small, willing to pay over the odds for quality. The second case hardly applies to general-interest news services. To attract large audiences, news has to follow audience-maximizing strategies, with likely popularity guiding selection rather than judgments of significance.
Where advertising is the main source of revenue, much the same applies, with the additional factor of seeking to please and also not offend key advertisers. Research into television news by McManus (1994) makes it clear how the goal of maximizing audiences and minimizing costs has a clear impact on particular story choices, cutting across other journalistic criteria of value. Although well-established media companies, such as U.S. network news channels, could afford up until the late 1980s to cross-subsidize their news operations for reasons of prestige, news is increasingly required to make a profit for itself. The growing “free media” category, paid for by advertising, hardly makes a pretense of applying standards based on journalistic values and cannot claim independence of judgment in commenting on news. Although minority and alternative media can still offer news, and now more easily by way of the Internet, their chances of gaining a significant public reach are very limited.
To the general factors mentioned should be added the fact that established news media are likely to be owned or controlled by large media corporations or wealthy individuals. This both reflects a degree of monopoly and also opens the way for influence on news content that favors big business interests. Such influence is not unrestrained and is not often easy to demonstrate, but it does exist, with little effective counterweight.
The study of news media production has broadened out and deepened considerably over the past century. The themes touched on here remain today much as they have been during that century, and, as we have noted, virtually from the beginning the methodological armamentarium of the news production researcher has included the tools of content analysis, survey research, and observation. We have demonstrated, too, an ebb and flow in theoretical orientation. We propose, too, that the recent past has firmly established the signal importance of production studies in the wider field of news media study.