How the Media Work — (RANN)
How the Media Work
In the United States, the media are large businesses that are privately owned. Some television stations and newspapers
(particularly smaller ones) are owned locally by families or by groups of investors. Many of the biggest stations and
newspapers, however, are owned by large media corporations, which in turn, are often subsidiaries of enormous
The concentration of ownership has been increasing. In 1981, 46 corporations controlled more than half the circulation and
revenues of daily newspapers, magazines, television, books, and motion pictures. By 1986, the number has shrunk from 46
to 29. The owners of these media firms and conglomerates are mostly wealthy and conservative; they are certainly not very
critical of the American free enterprise system, within which they have done so well. This fact may affect the ideological
content of what the media broadcast.
The mass media has become increasingly unified and centralized. There has been a strong tendency for newspapers to merge. Moreover, most newspapers and television stations depend largely on the same sources for news. Almost all major newspapers in the country subscribe to the Associated Press wire service.
Nonetheless, a great deal of diversity remains for those who want to seek it out. There are publications that look at the world in many different ways, including the National Review (conservative), The Nation (liberal), and The New Yorker (lofty).
Media corporations, similar to other corporations, are in business primarily to make a profit. This fact has important consequences. It means, for example, that major media outlets must appeal to large audiences and get many people to buy their publications or the products that they advertise. If most people are mainly interested in entertainment and want their news short, snappy, and sensational, that is what they will get. The profit motive also means that the biggest mass media tend to appeal to the lowest common denominator, avoiding controversial material that might seem extreme, too liberal, too conservative, or otherwise offensive to substantial groups of viewers.
The power of the audience to determine what appears in newspapers and on television might be seen as a force for democracy, enabling as many people as possible to see and hear what they want, while those who do not share average tastes can look for specialized media outlets. However, there are at least three possible problems with this analysis.
First, some observers believe that it would be better to offer more political information, even if people were not eager for it, in order to help society as a whole.
Second, consumer sovereignty over the media is not really the same as one-person, one-vote, majority rule democracy because
much of the media caters to the more affluent members of society.
Third, and perhaps most important, media critics point out that advertisers and media owners are not actually forced to maximize the size of their audiences or advertising revenues on every program. They could give up some immediate income
for the sake of providing a public service.
The kind of news that the media presents is affected by the organization and technology of news gathering and news
production. It makes a difference where reporters are, what sources they talk to, and what sorts of video pictures are
available. For national news, most reporters are located in either Washington, D.C. or New York City. Few national news
organizations can afford to station reporters outside these cities.
Newspapers and television organizations depend a great deal on wire service reports for news and for story ideas. Few
newspapers are able to station reporters abroad and thus international stories don't usually receive in-depth coverage. Most media attention that is focused abroad is devoted to only limited areas of the world, particularly Western Europe and the Middle East. Beyond a few favorite nations, foreign news tends to be episodic.
A newspaper reporter's work is usually organized around a particular beat, which he or she checks every day for new stories. Most political beats center on some official government institution that regularly produces news, such as a local police station, city council, or the White House. In fact, much of the news is created or originated by officials, not by reporters.
Investigative reporting of the sort that Bernstein and Woodward did on Watergate is rare because it is so time consuming and expensive. One study found that government officials were the sources of nearly three-quarters of all news in the New York Times and Washington Post. Moreover, the vast majority (70 to 90 percent) of all news stories were drawn from situations over which the news makers had substantial control, such as press conferences, interviews, press releases, and official proceedings.
Reporters and officials work with each other every day and need each other. Reporters want stories and officials want
favorable publicity. Thus, a comfortable relationship tends to develop. This close relationship and heavy reliance on official sources means that government officials may often be able to control to a large extent what journalists report and how they report it.
Occasionally, high officials resort to direct pressure or intimidation to affect how news is reported. Pressure can also come from media owners and advertisers. However, advertisers, media owners, and high government officials mainly exert influence over media coverage quietly and inconspicuously through the editors and producers who are hired and fired by media owners.
Editors and producers are the people who assign reporters to stories, edit their work, and decide what to print or put on the air. They exert control over journalists, not just by assigning, accepting, or rejecting, and altering their stories, but also by administering praise, criticism, promotions, and advice. Successful reporters quickly learn what sorts of stories please their bosses and what sorts of stories don't. Thus, direct pressure is usually unnecessary.
Political news does not make much sense without interpretations of what it means and whether it is good or bad. Under the informal rules of "objective" journalism, however, explicit interpretations by journalists are avoided, except for commentary or editorials that are labeled as such.
Most interpretations are left implicit or are given by experts who are interviewed for comments. Most of these experts and commentators featured in the media are ex-officials and are usually in harmony with the political currents of the day. That is, they tend to reflect a fairly narrow spectrum of opinion close to that of the party in power in Washington, D.C., especially the party of the President.
Few subjects arouse more conflict and disagreement than the question whether the mass media in the United States are biased in a liberal or a conservative direction. For years, a number of journalists and scholars have maintained that the media tend to be a pro-establishment, conservative force, reflecting their corporate ownership and their dependence on official sources for news.
During the 1980s, conservative critics counterattacked, arguing that liberal media elites regularly published and broadcast anti-establishment, anti-authority news with a liberal bias. Surveys of reporters and journalists suggest that they tend to be somewhat more liberal than the average American, though by no means radical. The personal values of reporters probably affect what appears in the media, though there is little or no systematic evidence about the extent to which they actually do.
In contrast, the personal values of owners and top managers of media corporations tend to be very conservative. Such people are not very interested in undermining capitalism or, for that matter, increasing their taxes or labor costs. They are certainly not interested in offending their advertisers.
One sign of conservatism in the media is provided by newspapers' endorsements of presidential candidates which are usually decided by the owners and publishers of the newspapers. Since 1964, more newspapers have backed the Republican candidate for President than have endorsed the Democrat. Observers will probably continue to argue about bias in the media simply because bias is difficult to define and to measure.
Even if we cannot be sure whether the media are biased, it is easy to identify certain tendencies in media coverage, certain beliefs that are assumed, and certain values and points of view that are emphasized while others seldom appear. Most news about foreign affairs, for example, takes a definitely American, patriotic, or ethnocentric point of view. Ethnocentrism, along with a heavy reliance on U.S. government news sources, means that most foreign news coverage fits well with U.S. foreign policy.
Studies show, for example, that the media historically have gone easy on such right-wing dictators as the Shah of Iran, Marcos of the Philippines, and Somoza of Nicaragua, as long as they were firm allies of the U.S., even when they were very unpopular with their own people.
In foreign policy crisis situations, the reliance on official news sources means that the media sometimes propagate government statements that are false or misleading, such as the government's account of the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Another tendency of the media is to run stories generally approving of our American-style capitalist economic system and disapproving of variants or alternative systems, such as European social democracy. Individual corporations are criticized for errors and misdeeds, but the economic system itself is rarely challenged. Finally, another tendency of the media is to treat incumbent government officials with respect and deference.
To say that the media have these tendencies--whether we choose to call them "biases" or not--is to say that the media are influenced by the major structural and political forces in the United States. The position of the United States in the international system and the nature of the U.S. economy and social system affect every individual and institution in the country, including the media. The political forces that are dominant in the country at a given time also tend to dominate the media. This puts limits on how well the press can perform a watchdog function.