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Journalism: News Access And Source Power

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 5555 words Published: 10th May 2017

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In the study of mass communication, there has been a continuous debate about the more or less powerful effects of the media on the public. This power is not restricted to the influence of the media on their audiences, but also involves the role of the media within the broader framework of the social, cultural, political or economic power structures of society. Ideally, a media system suitable for a democracy ought to provide its readers with some coherent sense of the broader social forces that affect the conditions of everyday life. However, it is difficult to find anyone who even remotely approaches this ideal (Gamson et al, 1992). The overwhelming conclusion is that the media generally operate in ways that promote apathy, cynicism and quiescence, rather than active citizenship and participation.

This essay will explore the evidence that is offered that suggests why the nature of source/media relations matters in environmental issues and non-governmental organisations. It will also look at why communications and media researchers continue to investigate the topic and why source/media relations are important.

Media discourse analysis has traditionally focused on the news product. These studies have not only yielded important insights into the structure (Bell 1991, 1998), function (Jaworski, Fitzgerald and Morris, 2003; Khalil, 2006) and effect (Fairclough, 1995; van Dijk, 1998) of media language, but have also described micro level aspects such as the mechanics of turn-taking, repair and pause length in news interviews (Clayman and Heritage, 2002). Recently, however, the scope of media discourse analysis has started to broaden to include the complex discursive practices that lie at the heart of the news production process. Additionally, with the advent of new technologies, crucial ingredients of the news production process are now being opened up to researchers, with corporate websites parading massive press release archives and internet based news agencies and e-mail distribution services spreading breaking news in real time to whoever is interested in it (Geert, 1999).

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News access and news selection are the yin and yang of news production studies (Geert, 1999). Cottle (2000b) distinguishes the sociological and a culturalist paradigm in theories of news access. While the former investigates ‘news access in terms of strategic and definitional power, examining patterns of news access, routines of news production and processes of source intervention’ the latter theorises ‘news access in terms of cultural and ritual power, [sensitive], to the symbolic role of news actors and how they perform/enact within the conventions and textual structures of news representation – ritual, story, narrative (pp. 28-9).’

News sociology has a long standing tradition. Early, seminal studies of deviance (Becker, 1963), newsworthiness (Galtung and Ruge, 1973), news management (Schudson, 1978), hegemony (Hall et al, 1978) paved the way for political economy views of corporate control (Herman and Chomsky, 1988) and mediatisation (Thompson, 1995) on the one hand, and social constructionist approaches to news production (Gitlin, 1980) on the other. The classic newsroom ethnographies of the 1970s and 1980s (Tunstall, 1971; Tuchman, 1972, 1978; Gans, 1979; Golding and Elliot, 1979; Fishman, 1980; Erickson, Baranek and Chan, 1987) crystallised a radical moment in the historical development of news study. Taken together these studies forced attention to the structural and institutional forces at play in newsrooms, focusing on how news is ‘an organisational and bureaucratic accomplishment of routine’ (Cottle, 2000a, p. 21). For example, Tuchman (1972) sees source dependence as a ‘strategic ritual’, borne out of a professional ideology allowing journalists to frame their work as objective accounts of news events.

According to Geert (1999), while this early generation of social scientists drove home the importance of professional routines, norms and settings of news production, other scholars have pointed to theoretical blind spots. With new technologies being introduced in newsrooms (Pavlik, 2000), come new concepts of journalistic practice (Carlson, 2007), leading to questions of continued theoretical validity and calls for updating newsroom ethnography (Cottle, 2000a; Zelizer, 2004). Schudson (2005) has warned against the dangers of a reductionist or determinist approach to the media in which the news production process is seen as the direct result of underlying economic and political forces. Such an approach does not account for the agency of journalists as social actors, which, given in today’s changing news ecology, is especially pressing. Indeed, it could be argued that, from an analytical point of view, media sociology has largely disregarded journalistic agency in favour of organisational and institutional levels of analysis. Recently, however, some scholars have pointed their attention to alternative theories of cultural production, most prominently, Bourdieu’s field theory (Couldry, 2003; Benson, 2006; Hesmondhalgh, 2006; Neveu, 2007).

In contradistinction of grand sociological debates, cultural and anthropological studies of news production such as Peterson (2001) and Ståhlberg (2002) apply notions of social mediation, cultural production and reflexivity in analysing the situated practices of media production and consumption. This burgeoning field which has come to be identified as media anthropology (Askew and Wilk, 2002; Ginsburg, Abulughod and Larkin, 2002; Peterson, 2003; Rothenbuhler and Coman, 2005; Boyer and Hannerz, 2006) theorises the ethnography of media production as ‘an emergent effort, to talk about the agency of media producers within a cultural system while still recognising their embeddedness in larger structures of power,’ (Peterson, 2003, p. 164).

van Dijk (1990) notes that a brief conceptual analysis is needed in order to specify what notions of power are involved in such an approach to the role of the news media. Social power as van Dijk explains is summarily defined as a social relation between groups or institutions, involving the control by a (more) powerful group or institution (and its members) of the actions and the minds of (the members) a less powerful group. Such power generally presupposes privileged access to socially valued resources, such as force, wealth, income, knowledge or status. van Dijk goes on to explain that media power is generally symbolic and persuasive, the sense that the media primarily have the potential to control to some extent the minds of readers or viewers, but not directly their actions. Except in cases of physical, coercive force, the control of action, which is usually the ultimate aim of the exercise of power, is generally indirect, whereas the control of intentions, plans, knowledge, beliefs or opinions – that is mental representations that monitor overt activities is presupposed.

Also, van Dijk (1990) notes that given the presence of other sources of information, and because the media usually lack access to the sanctions that other – such as legal or bureaucratic-institutions may apply in cases on noncompliance, mind control by the media can never be complete. On the contrary, psychological and sociological evidence suggests that despite the pervasive symbolic power of the media, the audience will generally retain a minimum of autonomy and independence and engage more or less actively, instead of purely passively, in the ‘use’ of the means of mass communication. In other words, whatever the symbolic power of the news media, at least some media users will generally be able to ‘resist’ such persuasion.

Another notion in the analysis of media power is that of access. According to van Dijk (1990), it has been shown that power is generally based on special access to valued social resources.

Thus, controlling the means of mass communication is one of the crucial conditions of social power in contemporary information societies. Indeed, besides economic or other social conditions of power, social groups may be attributed social power by their active or passive access to various forms of public, other influential or consequential discourse, such as those of the mass media, scholarship or political and corporate decision making (p. 12).

Although ‘ordinary people’ may make use of the news media, they generally have no direct influence on news content, nor are they usually the major news actors of news reports (van Dijk, 1990). Elite groups or institutions, on the other hand, may be defined by their broader range and scope of patterns of access to public or other important discourses and communicative events. Leading politicians, managers, scholars or other professionals have more or less controlled access to many different forms of text and talk, such as meetings, reports, press conferences or press releases.

This is especially true for their access to media discourse. Journalist will seek to interview them, ask their opinion, and thus introduce them as major news actors or speakers in news reports. If such elites are able to control these patterns of media access, they are by definition more powerful than the media. On the other hand, those media that are able to control access to elite discourse, in such a way that elites become dependent on them in order to exercise their own power, may in turn play their own role in the power structure. In other words, major news media may themselves be institutions of power and dominance, with respect not only to the public at large, but also to other elite institutions. (van Dijk, 1990, p. 12).

For some areas like risk and the environment as well as issues like trade unions which are non-governmental organisations, media discourse is to a significant extent, a discourse dependent upon the voices of official ‘experts’. Environmental organisations, non-governmental organisations, industry, scientists, and government offer their own particular competing accounts of the ‘reality’ of the situation. Issues concerning differential access to the news media are crucial when considering who comes to define the event. Accordingly, the following examines news/source media relations as it relates to 1) environmental issues and 2) non-governmental and the various news sources involved in influencing the symbolic representation of public issues.

News/Source Media Relations and Environmental Issues

Over recent decades a growing environmental promotion industry has emerged, alongside an increasing emphasis upon environmental advocacy. A number of information crises (eg. The Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989) have forced sections of industry to take a more proactive approach to environmental communications as potent imagery has directed contradicted assurances that environment protection is not compromised by their activities (Anderson, 1991). At the same time, the public exhibit a growing sense of distrust of scientists (Beck, 1992). The sense of distrust has partly emerged from news media formats that favour confrontational dialogue among ‘experts’ and offer the public little means of evaluating opposing viewpoints. There has been a tendency to display the debates in dramatic, sensational headlines rather than a considered approach that furthers public understanding of the issues (Anderson, 1991). The sheer complexity of many environmental issues acts as a major constraint, particularly considering that relatively few journalists reporting on these matters possess a scientific background (Anderson, 1997; Nelkin, 1995; Peters, 1995).

The news media possess a great responsibility in relaying scientific issues to the public, since they contribute a major source of information about science within our society (Adam, 1991).

Through their mediation, interpretation and translation of otherwise in accessible knowledge into a publicly accessible form, news workers are not only prime sources of public information but also the principal social; theorists of contemporary industrial societies. As such, they carry a heavy burden, a responsibility they are poorly equipped to provide and that does not sit comfortably with their own self-perception. That is their understanding of themselves as harbingers of news, disseminators of matter of human interest and providers of a critical perspective on the more shady aspects of socio-political and socio-economic life (p. 125).

Routine news media reporting of environmental issues is often mediated through the ‘expert’ as the voice of authority. However, it is important to note the ways in which the news media present certain ‘expert’ voices as being self-evidently ‘authoritative’ whilst competing views are frequently portrayed as non-credible, irrational and partisan. This can have the effect of discouraging critical thinking and the brushing aside of lay views. However, as Beck (1992) observes there are some grounds for optimism since the media also potentially play a part of opening up the critique of science and exposing conflicts of opinion and ideological standpoints. At the same time research suggests that while official news sources may not automatically enjoy the most statistically prominent level of news coverage, they are far more likely to appear in news formats where they enjoy a larger degree of editorial control. Also they tend to provide analytical knowledge as opposed to subjective/experiential knowledge (Cottle, 1999).

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It has been frequently observed that the news media representation of environmental issues is pre-occupied with ‘bad’ news. Much environmental coverage is centred on ‘events’ rather than issues (Hansen, 1990, 1999; Molotch and Lester, 1975; Singer and Endreny, 1987). This partly reflects the fact that much news coverage is based on a 24 hour cycle and especially applies to television news (Anderson, 1997). This orientation towards ‘events’ may encourage audience members to place blame upon particular companies or individuals within a company, rather than see this in terms of broader structural problems. One such example is the Exxon Valdez disaster with event-centred coverage. Coverage of the oil spill tended to be framed around the allegation that it was caused by the drunken state of the Captain, Joseph Hazelwood. This played down other possible angles concerning cutbacks in maritime safety standards or the oil industry’s poor capacity to clean up large oil spills in areas such as the Prince William Sound (Dyer et al, 1991; Hannigan, 1995).

News media representations of the environment are also influenced by socio-political and cultural factors. Particular issues or events that capture attention tend to be mediagenic and can be easily situated within the established institutional framework. Often these resonate with deeply held cultural beliefs and values that operate at a powerful symbolic level. Another key aspect of news discourse, which particularly applies to television, is the reliance upon strong visual images to capture the audiences’ interest. In many cases the availability and quality of pictures becomes a central factor affecting broadcasters’ judgements about the news worthiness of a given environmental issue and is especially salient for short news bulletins. Political agendas and the perceived importance that politicians place upon particular issues also influence news values. Routine reporting on environmental issues is to a significant extent based around the voices of official ‘experts’, particularly individuals within government departments who are more likely to gain extended news actor entry through, for example, appearing in live interviews (Cottle, 1999).

Since the late 1970s environmental pressure groups in countries such as Britain and the United States (US) have become increasingly in their approaches to the news media. Particularly, they have become more adept at packaging their material in media friendly ways. Some groups have enjoyed some notable successes in manipulating news values to their own ends, but this has imposed significant constraints in terms of how they have been able to frame issues (Gramson and Modigliani, 1989). Issue sponsors, such as environmental pressure groups, play a key role in communicating environmental affairs. These competing sources have differing levels of ‘information subsidies’ in terms of resources such as cost and time, which affects how far the media rely upon them on as routine basis. Ericson et al (1989) note:

News is a product of transactions between journalists and their sources. The primary source of reality for news is not what is displayed or what happens in the real world. The reality of news is embedded in the nature and type of social and cultural relations that develop between journalists and their sources (p. 189).

Many studies of environmental reporting have found a tendency for official sources to gain the most privileged access to the media (Anderson, 1997). Molotch and Lester’s (1975) seminal study of the press coverage of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill found that federal officials and industry spokespersons gained more access to the media, compared with local officials or conservationists. However, they note that initially an accident may bypass the usual routine bias towards official frames due to its unexpected nature. This suggests that non-routine environmental reporting may, in some instances, open up new channels to groups who may often be marginalised within the media. This was found to be the case in the United Kingdom (UK) national press coverage of the ‘seal plague’ – a virus, which killed a large number of common seals of the Norfolk coast in the UK during the summer of 1988 (Anderson, 1991, 1997). The way in which the seal plague came to serve as an icon for an environment in crisis shares some striking similarities to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The seal plague, with its emotive, visual appeal came to mark an issue threshold for environmental issues in the late 1980s. This was strongly linked to the cultural and political climate at the time. It generated much media coverage and one national mid market newspaper – The Daily Mail launched a sustained campaign ‘Save our Seals, which ran over several months. As such it can be seen that the reporting of environmental issues within the news media cannot be divorced from socio-political values regarding the environment.

News/Source Media Relations and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)

Just like environmental issues seek the piece of the pie when it comes to the media, NGOs also seek to have their stories told in the media. However, in discussing news/source media relations, it must be noted that over generalising when discussing NGOs must be avoided. As Deacon (2001) notes the relative importance of profile, resource and motives in the communications strategies of different NGOs is to some extent dictated by the specific context of their operations. Additionally, there are also structural variations, reflecting the different political and economic roles of various NGO sectors. Deacon address source/media relations as it relates to three types of NGOs namely, trade unions, the voluntary sector and quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (quangos). He points out ‘the first broad acceptance that these disparate ‘groups’, ‘organisations’ and ‘movements’ have proliferated in many political systems over recent decades, and in doing so have assumed greater social and political significance (Deacon, 2001, p. 8). However, where there is disagreement is whether these represent positive developments. Some commentators construe them as revitalising pluralist democracy, or challenging centuries of elite control. Others see this change as more of a ‘mixed blessing’. In Berry’s assessment ‘interest groups are no less a threat than they are an expression of freedom’ (1984, p. 2). The second point of consensus relates to the reasons for the proliferation of these organisations. Various commentators point to, on the one hand, the widening of educational opportunities and concomitant ‘rise of sophisticated citizenry’ (Mazzolena and Schultz, 1999), and on the other, emergent environmental, material, social and ideological conflicts both within, and between, advanced capitalist nation states (Blumler and Gurevitch, 1996, p. 126-7) These have produced a shift away from party-based politics, towards other forms of political engagements and the rise of ‘issue politics’. Thirdly, theorists from all perspectives acknowledge variation in these processes across different political systems, due to historical, cultural, structural and political factors (Eyerman and Jamison, 1991, p. 36). Additionally most accept that the influence of specific types of interest groups/pressure groups/social movements/ or NGOs tend to fluctuate over time (Deacon, 2001). The final point of agreement is that public communications are now integral to the operations of these political sources, and that the media have particular significance. Blumler (1989) labels this as the emergence of a ‘media-centric’ model of pressure group activity.

Deacon (1991) explains as the social and political roles of many NGOs expand so do the pressure and expectations upon them which in turn create a range of specific communications imperatives to do with establishing a political presence and attracting resources among others. For some NGOs, increased investment in strategic communication represents a defensive response to harsh political realities, in which they can no longer assume their views will have political resonance. Additionally, as a consequence of broader political, social and fiscal uncertainties, a diverse range of private and public institutions are becoming ever more concerned with image maintenance and achieving a prominent and positive public presence. In this new and competitive promotional environment (Wernik, 1991), media engagement has become a significant prerequisite for effective political engagement, particularly for those ‘without direct access to the levers of political and economic power’ (McNair, 1998, p. 156). In what Blumler and Gurevitch label a ‘communication dependent society’ certain organisations and institutions enjoy distinct competitive advantages in promoting their views and values. In particular, those with the greatest material resources at their disposal – most notably state and big business – can launch and sustain the most expensive and extensive ‘paid media’ access. However, ‘free media’ access can disrupt this market logic, providing opportunities for the ‘resource-poor’ agencies to achieve levels of national and international exposure that even the best resource could not fund directly. Additionally there are also other considerations such as ‘profile, resource and issue’ to be taken into account.

However, as Deacon (2001) points out these various communications considerations will not apply uniformly across NGOs. For example, the precise blend of resource, profile and issue motives will vary depending on a range of factors, some of which will be highly context specific. The relative importance of profile, resource and issue motives in the communications strategies of different NGOs is to some extent dictated by the specific context of their operations. However, there are also structural variations, reflecting the different political and economic roles of various NGO sectors. For example, Deacon highlights that most quangos receive direct statutory funding, they will tend to place less emphasis on financial resourcing motives than voluntary organisations, where dependency on public and corporate giving is high, and their financial state is generally more parlous. On another level, trade unions will tend to be more comfortable with open issue campaigning than voluntary organisations and quangos, partly because of their ‘primary’ political function, but also because they are not bound by conventions and regulations governing neutral public management and non-party-political charitable activity. Davis (1995) suggests that the salience of communications media strategies can also depend upon the nature and political context of the matter at hand. They are most crucial in policy struggles that are highly ideological and involve (at least for one participant) non-material, non-distributive goods:

Policy battles that range over intangible goals and values, such as the abortion issue, tend to evolve into virulently zero sum affairs. Such zero-sum politics, because of the heated struggle for competitive advantage that often marks it, relies heavily on pre-decisional, communication oriented efforts to frame or construct issues (p. 28).

Another significant factor can be the relationship between an organisation and the dominant institutions of state. In an influential categorisation, Grant suggests that pressure groups can be placed along a continuum that reflects their relationship to government.

However as Deacon (1991), warns if media prominence can deliver advantages to NGOs, there are associated risks. The most obvious of which is receiving negative and hostile treatment, which can compromise an organisation’s reputation. In this respect some NGOs are more valuable than others. A trade union for instance, that can depend on the complete solidarity of its members has less immediate grounds for fearing the spate of media opprobrium than a charity that is entirely dependent upon public donations. On a less obvious level, there is the possibility that courting media attention, and playing the media game, can have an effect upon organisations’ core values.

Miller (1997) suggests that this can be particularly threatening for radical organisations, there ‘The suspicion within the organisation that newly visible spokespersons might become infatuated with their own celebrity and have ‘sold out’ is never far from the surface.’ But this observation about the potentially corrupting influence of ‘media logic’ also applies to organisations operating in the political mainstream. Blumler (1989) terms the risk of ‘spurious amplification’, a process by which ‘inflammatory rhetoric and extravagant demands to make stories more arresting, distort what groups stand for,’ (p. 352).

Until recently, evaluations of media coverage of trade union sector in the UK tended to fall into two camps – ‘the critical research position’ which enjoyed considerable theoretical dominance during the 1970s and ‘the revisionist’ critique which emerged during the 1980s (Manning, 1998). More recently a third position has started to form which conforms to what Curran (1997) labels ‘a radical pluralist’ perspective. The latter negotiates a position between the extremes of critical outrage and revisionist sanguinity (Manning, 1998; Davies, 1999; Negrine 1996). Although these studies also analyse the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of news coverage of industrial disputes, their main contribution has been to go beyond ‘the texts’ to investigate the dynamics of news production directly by examining the links between journalistic practices and trade unions’ communications strategies. Such insights have been largely absent from most critical and revisionist accounts (Cottle, 1993).

The value of this new perspective is illustrated by Davies’ (1999) case study of media reporting of the British government’s proposal in 1992 for privatising the postal service. These plans were strongly opposed by the Union of Communication Workers (UCW), who instituted a carefully orchestrated public relations (PR) campaign against the privatisation programme. Davies’ content analysis revealed that although UCW sources came to be treated more positively or neutrally that either government or management sources as the dispute unfolded, the union received considerably less coverage than their political opponents. These results suggest that the recruitment of mainstream, media support to the anti-privatisation cause was due to elite divisions within the party of government and the vehemence of public antipathy. The union benefitted from wider political developments, it did not instigate them. However, by linking analysis of media reporting to an analysis of the union’s communication strategy, Davies shows the error of this interpretation. The union’s PR strategy played a key role in galvanising public, party political, professional and expert opinion against the privatisation proposals, which in turn had significant effect on media framing. In particular, by commissioning polls and lobbying influential opinion leaders, the union ‘bypassed the need for institutional legitimacy and direct access. Instead they gained a voice by using the legitimacy and access possessed by other sources: the public, ‘economic experts’, politicians and assorted ‘neutral’ user groups,’ (p. 182). Manning’s research also provides an overview of contemporary trends in media relations and identifies two ideals of union structure. On the one hand, there are unions where press and publicity functions are marginalised and rigidly trapped within a civil society service style hierarchy , and on the other, organisations that permit a higher degree of integration for their media and PR operations with their organisational leadership. These differences can in part be explained by the ‘dilemma of incorporation’ unions have had to confront in their response to the harsh political realities they face. In this period of his research, Manning found a stubborn residue of suspicion within certain unions towards the media that readily characterised journalists as inevitable class enemies, working at the behest of state and capitalist interests. Thus, the embrace of promotionalism in this context is not an act of assertion, but of defence: attempting to avoid marginalisation in a changing political and economic context (Deacon, 2001). It is also clear from Manning’s work that journalists’ perceptions of the political role and characteristics of trade unions frames their utilisation as news sources, and helps account for the predominant emphasis on their collective rather than constructive roles. A distinction developed by Peter Golding and Deacon (1994), identifies trade unions as ‘advocates’ by journalists. As news discourse is inherently conflictive this can enhance their news value in political disputes. However, this clear perception of unions’ political role prevents their deployment as ‘arbiters’ in news coverage. Therefore, to influence the terms of media debate at this level, Davies demonstrates in his case study, that trade unions often have to recruit the support of external experts to validate their arguments. Additionally, for such a strategy to work, it is often necessary to maintain a degree of public dissociation between the union and the expert, for fear that any links may erode the perceived authoritativeness of the latter’s proclamations.

This trend contrasts with common strategies deployed within the voluntary sector, where publicists strive to encourage a situation of association between the work of a voluntary organisation and the views of significant public figures. The main studies thus far into reporting of the voluntary sector suggests that there is limited but indulgent treatment, based on an antiquated impression of the sector. As Brindle (1999) notes ‘It is as if the media do not want the sector to grow up. Coverage remains very much stuck in the 1950s charity time warp of good cause fundraising, lifeboats, guide dogs and helping sick children. Even on the broadsheet national newspapers, there is a clear antipathy to stories that treat the leading charities as the big businesses they have become,’ (p. 44). Looking at trends in media reporting towards communications and media strategies in the sector, Deacon notes an increasing emphasis on public communication similar to that noted in the union sector is evident. However, the embrace of promotionalism appears more uneven. As Davies suggests, it is tempting to simply conclude that in ‘free media’ just as in ‘paid media’, financial resources deliver insurmountable competitive advantages ‘to those who hath.’ The fact that the media


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