What’s the news? Developments within the research field of news studies
What makes news? A question providing continuous stimulation to a special field of media research: the news studies. News studies form the part of media and culture studies dealing with news in mass media. They give attention to choice, composition and topics of news. Relating to Harold D. Lasswells renowned question ‘Who says what in which channel to whom with what effect?’ (Lasswell 1964: 93) defining the research fields of communication science, they are mostly about the ‘what’, the content, the product, the news. What kind of circumstances turn an event into news? What makes it valuable enough to be published? And what is the currency? The New York Times puts it since 1896 into the slogan ‘All the news that fit to print’. But it’s obviously not that simple to explain. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been such intensive research and controversial discussions for so many years. News studies go back to the 1920s, when Walter Lippmann started researching origin, flow and value of news. Since then many models and theories have been developed. Nowadays news studies or news theories are collective terms for widespread models dealing with gatekeepers (the ‘who’ in Lasswells formula), news flow, news value, news composition, news bias, and agenda setting. This essay tries to sum up some of the most important theories concerning the choice of news, especially news value theories and gatekeeper studies. Voices being critical of the classic theories will also be mentioned. Of course a universally valid answer to the question ‘What’s the news?’ cannot be given. But maybe some references.
news studies – gatekeeper – news flow – news value – news factors
‘All the reporters in the world working all the hours of the day could not witness all the happenings in the world. There are not a great many reporters. And none of them has the power to be in more than one place at a time. Reporters are not clairvoyant, they do not gaze into a crystal ball and see the world at will, they are not assisted by thought transference. Yet the range of subjects these comparatively few men manage to cover would be a miracle indeed, if it were not a standardized routine.’
Walter Lippmanns conclusion, drawn in 1922 in his book ‘Public Opinion’ (Lippmann, 1949: 338), emphasizes routines of journalists selecting and construing parts of reality into news. Since reality is even too huge to picture it roughly in media, there is an important tool, helping journalists to choose: routine judgements, based on news value. From that point on are less the communicators than the events´ attributes decisive.
‚Without standardization, without stereotypes, without routine judgements, without a fairly
ruthless disregard of subtlety, the editor would soon die of excitement.’
Lippmann (1949: 352) mentions some of the attributes affecting the news value: proximity, big names, oddity, conflict, establishment, continuity, sensationalism, relevance, damage, utility, structure, institutional influence.
The more criteria fulfilled by an event and the stronger the values of that criteria, the greater the chance for it to be published, according to Lippmann. Even though he didn’t deliver much of an empirical proof his works became basics for journalists instruction in the United States and a milestone in the worldwide news research.
Gatekeepers – the subjective power of decision makers
It was David Manning White who transplanted social psychologist Kurt Lewins term ‘gatekeeper’ into media research. While Lewin (1947: 145) concentrated on group dynamics within small groups (e. g. the ‘gatekeeper’ as a wife or mother, as the person who decides which foods end up on the family's dinner but also as a provider of news items) tried White (1950: 383) to specify these thoughts for news studies. He deals with the gatekeeper as a person who picks news to forward them to media. This person is real, it’s the telegraph editor of a newspaper, White calls him ‘Mr. Gates’. Unpublished wire news were analyzed in 1949 by interviewing ‘Mr. Gates’ and asking him to reason his choice. Whites case study partly revealed the dependency of news selection on editors subjective and personal experiences, attitudes and expectations, editorials organizational and technical limitations, and (fragmentary) presumptions of the audience expectations.
Whites pioneer research was continued by Paul B. Snider (among others). He revisited the famous ‘Mr. Gates’ 17 years after White (Snider, 1966: 286) and draws the conclusion:
‘Mr. Gates still picks the stories he likes and believes his reader wants. (…) He likes to gather the wire copy in broad classifications as a convenient method of scanning, selecting and consolidating; he does not consciously try to fill any quota, real or imagined, for any particular category.’
This Mr. Gates seems to be quite passive when it comes to changing notices from the news agencies. This finding is still up-to-date: Many media take news from the agencies for granted, publish them without bigger changes and if there is not enough space, they will be shortened from the end.
In the 1970s Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw chose a different direction when they looked at the effects of gatekeepers' decisions. They found that the audience learns how much importance to attach to a news item from the emphasis that the media place on it. McCombs and Shaw pointed out that the gate keeping concept is closely related to a newer concept, agenda-setting (McCombs/Shaw, 1976: 18-22).
Gertrude Joch Robinson underlined within the gatekeeper studies the influence of so-called ‘institutional factors’: No journalist in an editorial office could only be considered as a independent decision maker, without any doubt he or she is also part of a ‘news bureaucracy’ (Robinson, 1973: 344 -355).
Most gatekeeper studies had some basic assumptions in common: The gatekeeper decides which information will make its way and which will not. Gatekeepers could control the public knowledge of the actual events. They don’t have to be human. Institutions or organizations can also be gatekeepers. Media gate keeping showed that decision making is based on principles of news values, routines and structures. Gate keeping is inevitable and in some circumstances it can be useful, but it can be dangerous as an abuse of power.
In particular the news bias research put its emphasis on the journalists personal convictions and their influence on news selection. But this point of view has its weakness in the obvious fact that no journalist works more or less on his own, each of them is part of bigger social and medial structures.
Relating to earlier organization theoretical studies, American sociologist Gaye Tuchman developed a theory of editorial decision routines. Since journalism is a everyday mass production of unique products under a high pressure of time, there have to be highlighted some aspects of reality. This happens by the use of editorial decision routines. Firstly some basic problems have to be solved, like getting access to sources of information, relativization of the costs, pressure of time and lack of space. Secondly topics and events must be assigned to certain resorts and columns. Finally, events have to fulfill special journalistic criteria – they have to represent news values (Tuchman, 1978).