Newsroom Culture

Norman P Lewis. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

Newsroom culture refers to the assimilation of unwritten workplace rules and shared assumptions regarding values, beliefs and practices. Unlike climate, which can vary between organizations and change with each leader, newsroom culture is embedded into the customs and mores of the profession and evolves gradually. Culture is a sociological feature of all workplaces, a function of human interaction.

What makes newsroom culture significant is its influence on how news is defined and reported. Journalists have norms that govern behavior, such as acceptance of minor deceptions to obtain a story or uneven treatment of presidential candidates during primary elections based on who is deemed to have a chance of getting elected. Because these foundational beliefs are seldom articulated, journalists rarely discuss newsroom culture or acknowledge its influence on their everyday routines. Therefore, most writing about newsroom culture comes not from journalists, but from sociologists and academics studying workplace behavior, and analyzing the tension between autonomy and conformity.

The primary hallmarks of newsroom culture are competition and a situational ethic that justifies getting the story. Newsroom morale depends on competition. Television journalists measure their effectiveness by Nielsen ratings and celebrate the “get,” an exclusive interview. Long before websites and portable satellite uplinks enabled 24/7 news operations, journalists chased after breaking news and strove to beat competitors by minutes. Getting stories first also justifies inaccuracies; newsrooms generally believe it is better to report the story in a timely manner and get a few details wrong than it is to ensure every detail is accurate and get beaten. Competition also exists within organizations. Television’s pay scales encourage an up-or-out career path in which journalists expect to stay at a station for no more than a year or two, build a demo tape and jump to a larger market—a competition that creates a newsroom culture with shallow geographic roots. Some newspapers pit starting journalists against each other in undesirable beats or less prestigious departments to see who will sink or swim. Such competitions reinforce the other enduring facet of newsroom culture, that the story trumps most other considerations. Journalists may debate the ethical ramifications of practices such as hidden cameras and weigh the potential harmful effects of a story, but they ultimately give the story itself preeminence, a thumb on the scales in favor of publication or broadcast. If the story is important, journalists feel little compunction about using stolen or leaked documents such as the Pentagon Papers, and so long as they themselves did not commit theft to get the documents. Newsrooms are factories designed to supply news for the next news show or edition and thus have an incentive to place the story ahead of other considerations.

Development

Newsroom culture has evolved as a result of media economics, the professionalism of journalism, and social forces. Newspapers, which began as one-person operations, continued to reflect their owners even when they became larger operations as advances in machinery and the urbanization of America made large-circulation papers feasible. The press lords of the nineteenth century, such as James Gordon Bennett (1795-1872). William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), and Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), molded their newspapers in their images. Even in the twentieth century, a Hearst newspaper had a different feel than one run by Col. Robert McCormick (1880-1955) in Chicago (Chicago Tribune), Harry Chandler (1864-1944) in Los Angeles (Los Angeles Times) or John S. Knight (1894-1981) in Detroit (Detroit Free Press). In some cases, editors imbued their newspapers with unusual climates, such as when Barney Kilgore (1908-67) built The Wall Street Journal into a national force or Gene Roberts (1932-) transformed the Philadelphia Inquirer from a second-tier newspaper in its own town into one of the nation’s top five dailies, according to a Time magazine ranking, by instilling a risk-taking culture that embraced pranks like bringing a camel into the newsroom.

In some cases, systems have lasted over time. For example, The New York Times, which for years has invested a fair amount of authority in its editing “bullpen,” is regarded as an editor’s newspaper, while The Washington Post bestows more authority to individual reporters and grants editors less leverage. But while the locus of power may last several decades, and although the impact of individual editors, news directors, and producers is undeniable, these distinctive characteristics may not be durable. The more pervasive and ubiquitous nature of newsroom culture evolves more slowly, and primarily from economics, education, and society.

The strength of press lords and other powerful figures waned into the twentieth century because of inheritance taxes and the inevitable thinning of family bloodlines. Families such as the Ochs-Sulzberger line that has guided The New York Times since 1896 are rare; more common are the Knights, Chandlers, and Bancrofts that relinquished control to Wall Street or sold outright. At the start of the twentieth century, the ratio between family and corporate ownership was about four-to-one; by the end of the century, that relationship had been reversed. As newspapers turned into public companies, they increasingly were run by professional managers with marginal journalistic credentials, and Al Neuharth (1924-) of media company Gannett exemplified a push to raise operating margins and quarterly earnings to boost stock prices. These economic emphases changed newsroom culture from one dominated by the eccentricities of its owners to one standardized by group ownership while embracing marketing techniques such as audience surveys and business terminology like “return on investment.” Newspaper chains valued having publishers and editors who could move between newspapers every three to five years, rather than stay at one location for decades, which in turn produced a uniformity in newsroom culture.

This economic-induced homogenization paralleled rising professionalism. The American Society of Newspaper Editors was formed in 1922 partly to establish ethical standards for newspaper journalism and thus imbue newsroom culture with a sense of craft. Journalism turned away from the excesses of sensationalism that marked the end of the nineteenth century by emphasizing the training and development of journalists, including the first collegiate program (at the University of Missouri) in 1908. The rough-and-tumble era exemplified by the play and movie The Front Page was being replaced by a white-collar mentality. The audience was becoming more educated, too. A public that once saw newspapers as primarily entertainment vehicles, embracing moon hoax stories and lurid tales of debauchery, expected its newspapers to supply serious and truthful accounts of an increasingly complex world. In turn, newspapers, led by The New York Times, began to transfer power from the publisher to the reporter. No longer could a publisher’s parochial or partisan vision be sufficient to meet the expectations of the audience; newspapers needed educated and capable reporters to summarize events and challenge official pronouncements. Thus, the newsroom culture was changed from one that reflected its owner to one that prized independence and autonomy. Rather than take its cues from the owner’s preferences, the newsroom saw itself as a profession defined by peers.

The situation was different for television, which from its inception was controlled by networks dependent on advertising. Even CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (1908-65), who set the standards for the new medium, allowed a show’s sponsor to dictate the choice of broadcaster host, though not the content. Further, the ability of television to reach vast numbers of people, and to stir emotions in a way no printed product could, gave it so much power that broadcasters were more cautious than they had been on radio. As author David Halberstam noted in The Powers That Be (1997), television networks, from their inception, decided unconsciously that they would be judicious in their use of power and limit the autonomy of news programs—so much so that Lyndon Johnson once observed that Walter Cronkite (1916-2009) would have been the most powerful person in America if he would have said on television what he said on radio. Television’s power limited the autonomy of its practitioners.

A third factor affecting newsroom culture has been social change precipitated by the civil rights movement, which in turn spawned the second wave of feminism. After race riots broke out in dozens of U.S. cities, the Kerner Commission in 1968 scolded the news media, with its lily-white newsrooms, for providing a distorted picture of life in America. The situation was equally dire when viewed through the lens of gender: females were relegated to women’s sections in newspapers and were virtually nonexistent in television. Antidiscrimination laws and regulations, enforced by the Federal Communications Commission for broadcasters, and a consensus that newsroom employment should reflect the communities they serve, gradually resulted in more diverse newsrooms. Women moved into the city room and assumed decision-making positions; his-and-her anchors became the norm in local television. However, social change did not completely transform the newsroom, even into the twenty-first century. Television prefers women who are young and attractive, and daily newspaper employment has never approached gender parity. Religion is often a blind spot in U.S. newsrooms, exemplified by The Washington Post‘s 1993 front-page description of evangelical Christians as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command,” a pejorative phrase that should have triggered alarms during the editing process. Some critics such as Bernard Goldberg in Bias and William McGowan in Coloring the News have argued that journalism’s embrace of diversity has been selective and resulted in errors born from a liberal bias. While most journalists have rejected those criticisms, they are more than three times more likely to have a college degree than the audiences they serve and, especially in urban markets, are often paid more than the median per-capita wage. In short, newsrooms tend to be more elite than their communities, validating the Kerner Commission critique.

Autonomy and Conformity

Throughout its evolution, newsroom culture has been the product of two seemingly contradictory ideas: autonomy and conformity. A hallmark of any profession is the autonomy granted practitioners. For journalists, that autonomy is seen as a necessary check on the influence of advertisers and the powerful. Yet journalism is also practiced in social settings in which peers guide behavior—not only because human beings are socialized creatures but also because journalists depend on consensus to define news and set ethical boundaries. Competing television networks, for example, scrutinize each other’s evening newscasts, wanting to stand out from the others but not by much; they need their coverage decisions and priorities to be similar enough to affirm their definitions of news. The tension between autonomy and conformity is heightened in the United States by the fact that the news reporting system is privately owned. Journalists serve a business purpose, to create and hold audiences, even as they assert they have a church-state relationship with the business side of the operation.

Starting in the 1950s, sociologists such as Warren Breed, Gaye Tuchman, and Herbert Gans identified the mix of autonomy and conformity in newsroom culture by observing journalists at work for extended periods. They found that even new staffers were attuned to the preferences of management, writing their stories to match whatever appeared in print and avoiding subjects that appeared to be taboo. Newsrooms are often run on a star system, and those afforded such status are granted much greater autonomy; in television stations, anchors—often referred to as “talent”—wield enormous authority to define and prioritize news. Gans, who studied CBS, NBC, Time, and Newsweek in the 1970s, was struck by how much those journalists relied on each day’s New York Times to define news, even as they insisted they made news judgments independently; they seemed oblivious to the conformity encouraged by the news bureaucracy. Tuchman found that newsrooms valued collegiality so highly that decision makers consciously apportioned prized front-page space fairly evenly among various sections rather than by merit. Several studies have shown that newsroom culture crosses organizational lines, such that competing city hall reporters share coverage ideas and story framing in a self-reinforcing mechanism to define news.

Journalistic core ideologies affirm the value of autonomy. Two of the Elements of Journalism identified by Kovach and Rosenstiel in their widely embraced 2001 book involve autonomy: independence from sources and freedom to exercise personal conscience. Journalists often view the mid-1970s’ Watergate scandal as an exemplar of the value of autonomy: unheralded Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein (1944-) and Bob Woodward (1943-) doggedly pursuing a story that few at their own newspaper and even fewer in a city teeming with journalists thought worth chasing. Yet journalists rarely acknowledge that conformity constrains autonomy. As President, Franklin Roosevelt adroitly used peer pressure to shape what the White House reporters covered. The FBI sought to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s by showing journalists evidence of King’s extramarital dalliances, and many journalists knew that President Kennedy had paramours in the White House. No journalist chose to print or air those stories because newsroom culture at the time deemed the private lives of public individuals to not be newsworthy. That would change dramatically just a few years later, when the indiscretions of U.S. Representative Wilbur Mills and presidential candidate Gary Hart became major news stories. As Rolling Stone reporter Timothy Crouse documented in The Boys on the Bus, a behind-the-scenes look at reporters covering the 1972 presidential election, editors expected their political reporters to follow similar angles on stories and expressed concern if their reporter’s version of a campaign event was markedly different than that of the wire services.

Conclusion

Journalists rarely discuss newsroom culture or acknowledge its existence because most of culture is implicit in newswork routines, yet it shapes how news is defined and pursued. At its core, newsroom culture is a product of tension between autonomy and conformity, between the independence granted individual practitioners and journalism’s need for consensus in determining what news is. As journalism enters a new era in which traditional boundaries between mediums are blurred by online convergence, newsroom culture may evolve further but will continue to be marked by an emphasis on competition and the supremacy of the story.