"What is news depends on what makes a good story. The news media's view of the world is influenced, and at times it might be said even distorted, by what Syracuse University Professor Thomas E. Patterson calls the 'situational bias' of journalism... Journalism's biases lie mostly in five areas: in favor of what is new, what is bad, what is dramatic, what is most readily available, and what can be readily understood...
"By definition, while operating within its relatively orthodox framework, news focuses on what is different and unexpected rather than what is familiar and predictable. What is new keeps changing all of the time, so the news offers a peculiarly fleeting, episodic, and disjointed view of the world...
"News is also usually about something bad happening - war, crime, corruption, violence, natural disaster. Good news is rarely reported unless - like peace breaking out, a welfare family winning the lottery, a victim's miraculous recovery, or a hurricane heading toward shore that suddenly veers off and blows out to sea - it represents dramatic change, includes a major element of the bizarre, or offers heartwarming human interest...
"The very essence of journalism, however, is uncovering whatever is bad rather than reporting whatever is good - questioning motives, searching out immorality, focusing on controversy and in general, looking for the worst in people and situations...
"To capture the audience's attention, news also focuses on and emphasizes the dramatic rather than the dull. It tells a story, after all, and feels compelled to make its stories interesting. Coverage tends to be anecdotal, centering on a few individuals or a specific incident, selecting images that make an eye-catching headline, an appealing lead, and a lively, simple story line. By singling out the most newsworthy, the most provocative, tendentious and dramatic elements of any event, the press often exaggerates what it reports. Rarely is any news story ever underplayed. So reality is portrayed as a series of crises and cliff-hanger plotlines, as opposed to the plodding process of daily life...
"The popular news media, led by television, perform an important service by calling the public's attention to certain issues and events. But they are seriously lacking in any effort to help audiences work through thoughtful judgements about policy alternatives...The episodic negative, provocative, and simplistic proclivities of most popular news media end up narrowing rather than broadening the range of the public's choices."
- Lawrence K. Grossman, The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age (New York: Viking, 1995)
Questions to Consider
- It is clear that the WTC tragedy scores highly according to all of the standards which Grossman identifies. His list of news biases, however, may become more interesting when we consider how much airtime is given to different aspects of the story. For example, how might we contrast the attention given to the footage of the actual crash to the amount of attention given to explaining the range of possible policy responses to the incident?
- Are certain aspects of the story which are hard to represent in concrete images less likely to receive air time? How does the network deal with issues which it can not turn into visually compelling footage? Are such issues more likely to get covered on some networks than on others?
- How might we read the balance between bad news (the focus on the terrorists) vs. good news (the focus on the ways that communities were coming together to respond to the tragic losses)?
- Other writers have pointed towards a geographic bias in news coverage. How might we compare the balance given to local or national events as compared to the attention given to international events?
- Grossman is the former president of NBC News and of the Public Broadcasting Service. How do you think that insider knowledge informs or biases his account of news here? How might we contrast the role which these factors play in network news as opposed to PBS coverage?
- Grossman makes the point that television news tells stories, rather than say, recounting information. What aspects of traditional storytelling do you see at play in the news stories you are watching? Who are the heroes? The villains? The victims? What constitutes a resolution or conclusion to the story? How does the open-ended nature of this story encourage us to keep watching the news for more information? If we think of news as a story, it would seem to have more in common with soap operas - which never wrap up all of their plotlines at once - than situation comedies - which typically resolve their plots in half an hour.
- If television news tells a story, then we can imagine other ways that story could be told. What might be other ways of telling the story of these events?
- How does the news' dependence on storytelling conventions shape our emotional alliances? When we watch a fictional story, we usually have a good idea what we are supposed to feel towards the major characters. How might this reliance on storytelling conventions run counter to the ideal of objective journalism?
- Newspapers tend to organize their reports in a structure known as the inverted pyramid. Under that convention, the opening paragraph provides a summary of the key information and each subsequent paragraph reports information in the order of its importance (the most important information first, the least important last). Does television news work the same way? Or does the push towards storytelling result in a shift towards a more sequential (this happened, and then this happened...) organization of information?
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