Professionalism and objectivity

As the print media became more influential in defining the universe, the writing of news stories tended more and more to conform to a narrative structure required by hot media.

There is this intangible thing called a news story - I don't know how you recognise it, it's experience. I suppose. It's an odd quality. You can put six reporters in a court and they can sit through six hours of court verbiage and they'll all come out with the same story.61

As one Daily Mirror reporter told Chibnall: "After years of having your copy changed by the subs I suppose you simply learn by experience the sort of stuff they want and how to get it in the paper as written."62 Or as Herman says: "Professionalism has also internalized some of the commercial values that media owners hold most dear, like relying on inexpensive official sources as the credible news source."63

In The News as Myth, Koch identifies four components64 that decide the importance to a boundary event so that it can become a reportorial event worthy of publication.

1. The cultural rule defines an event as worthy of note generally in accordance with McLuhan's observation that news tends to be bad news, to counterbalance all the good news in the advertising.

2. The social rule or context dictates the degree of coverage e.g. death of a princess gets saturation coverage compared to death of a Serb nun. "News is a social construct empowered by a cultural history and a tradition of institutional practice based on material and cognitive realities."65

Despite the UK Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct attempting to overcome racist bias in newspaper publishing, professional photojournalists express an awareness that it is a waste of time trying to sell a picture of a black hero to the Daily Mail even after that newspaper took a campaigning stance over the death of Stephen Lawrence.66

3. The geographical (or proximity) rule. Newspapers serve a particular readership. The more remote the event from the reader, the more relevant the story has to be to warrant its space in the publication. In the US, national news is "largely shaped and driven and distorted" by an emphasis on the perspective of eastern regions.67 The rule of thumb followed by the Yorkshire Post was once rumoured to be One Yorkshireman = 5 Londoners = 100 Frenchmen = 500 Africans.68 The relative value of proximity is universal and in Australian newsrooms the rough formula used to be: "One dead Australian equals ten dead Englishmen, equals one thousand dead Chinese."69

4. The temporal rule. "Newspapers predominantly report 'developments' occurring between the two most recent printing deadlines, supplying only enough 'background' information to make the foreground event intelligible at a mundane level."70

On 21 March 1998 "Salesman became too nice for job" was the headline of Robin Young's court report about Charles Cornell who received 320,000 compensation because head injuries sustained in a car crash gave him what his family regarded as a more pleasant personality but took away the aggressive edge needed for a top salesman. This story was published at the bottom of page 3 in the UK (following the geographical rule and the temporal rule) whereas by the following day Thailand's English-language Sunday Nation had bought the story from a French agency and placed it on page one (giving weight to the story according to the social context and the cultural rule). Supposedly the idea of a salesman being too nice for his job has greater appeal to English-language readers in Thailand.

The printed and broadcast word has the power to endow orthodoxy on a given version of events. Just as the London Times took on the role of being a "newspaper of record" such broadcast media as CNN71 have assumed a similar role in portraying reality to their consumers. The relatively hot media of radio, news print and television news process reality according to certain fixed formulae. For good or ill, these formulae evolved in response to the needs of media ownership which over time has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. It is now unequivocal that journalists' salaries are paid by advertisers rather than by readers paying a cover price.

The propaganda model appears to hold good inasmuch as the mainstream media, as elite institutions, commonly frame news and allow debate only within the parameters of elite interests. And that where the elite is really concerned and unified, and/or where ordinary citizens are not aware of their own stake in an issue or are immobilised by effective propaganda, the hot media will serve elite interests uncompromisingly.72

The selection of copy by editorial staff is clearly a commercial process rather than a philosophical one. News stories are processed so that the amount of balance is within tolerances acceptable to the taste of the readership on the one hand and the interests of the advertisers on the other, but it would be naive to regard this as objectivity.


61 Steve Chibnall, Law-and-Order News: An analysis of Crime Reporting in the British Press (London: Tavistock Publications, 1977) p. 13
62 Chibnall p. 13
63 Herman, The propaganda model revisited
64 Koch p. 50
65 Koch p. 19
66 "Of course it is true to say that freelance photojournalists know better than to try and sell a picture of a black hero to the Daily Mail. Every paper has its market and will only take pics that they can publish in that market." - e-mail dated Sunday 10 May 1998, from Paul Ross - Current Affairs photojournalist, home and foreign. E-mail: paul@paulross.demon.co.uk
67 M. L. Stein, "Who Sets the News Agenda?" Editor and Publisher, December 31, 1988, 7.
68 However enquiries at the Yorkshire Post's newsdesk fail to locate one person who can remember the full quote or attribute it to an original source.
69 S. A. White, Reporting in Australia, (Sydney: MacMillan, 1991) p. 13
70 Chibnall p. 23
71 A similar ethos prevails at the BBC where there are no advertisers but a board of governers oversees a dynamic relationship with the UK parliament who controls the license fee.
72 Herman, The propaganda model revisited

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