The sociology of journalism treats news as a social construction of reality focusing on internal processes in the news organization as well as external influences and forces that shape news production. I aim to assess how important the sociology of journalism is to providing insights into the working practices of journalists. To achieve this I will discuss the factors involved with the construction of news and attempt to specify, using examples, the implications that each of these has on journalistic working practices. The factors range from the news marketplace to the language of news to the cultural context of news. Studying this wide spectrum of factors will help to build a strong understanding of their implications and how they relate to journalistic working practices.
As the time and space that news organisations have to present the news is not infinite they must be selective in what they report. Gate-keeping is an internal process of news organisations which determines what events qualify as news. This process involves the working practices of journalists being determined by ‘a structure of values which can be applied to the multitude of events occurring in the real world, allowing them to be sifted and hierarchically placed’ (McNair, 1998:77). Typically these values account for things like whether a story has significant consequences, proximity to its readers, conflict, human interest, novelty or involves a prominent person. For example a report on how migrant workers effect employment in Britain featured highly in the news agendas of major newspapers. This is because the story is viewed by journalists as having major consequences and proximity to the readership as it deals with the issue of unemployment which affects a large demographic (Slack 2012). The affairs of elites or celebrities become very important for some journalists because ‘people defined as important by their position in government, or their fame and fortune, are automatically newsworthy, even if they have done nothing which might reasonably or statistically count as a deviation from the norm’ (McNair, 78:1998). Tabloid journalists rely heavily on celebrity stories and it is argued ‘celebrities have currency not because of their impact upon public affairs but because an audience has become interested in their behaviour’ (Roshco, 1999:36). For example a large headline on the Sun’s website was about footballer Wayne Rooney changing his hairstyle (Wilkinson 2012). On the other hand journalists will only focus on the general public when they do something out of the ordinary. For example when someone crossed the U.S. border from Canada using a scanned passport image on his iPad it was newsworthy because of its abnormality (BBC 2012). Using the process of values Journalists choose what stories are worth reporting and subsequently decide what angle to write the story from. This illustrates that Gate-keeping and the attribution of values to news stories highlight significant insights into the way that journalists work.
The news media is often characterised in a watchdog role which ‘imbues the press with the role of being a forum for discussion, investigators of impropriety, an adversary to monopoly over power and knowledge and the defenders of truth, freedom and democracy’ (Richardson, 2005:73). This function of news within a liberal democracy means that there is outside pressure to report on relevant political news and criticise elites where necessary. A recent example of this mode of journalism is the reportage of the former defence secretary Liam Fox’s relationship with his friend Adam Werritty who, despite having no government position, claimed to be Fox’s advisor, regularly visited the defence ministry and was present at 18 overseas trips (BBC 2012). The watchdog role contributes to the construction of news because it determines what information is in the ‘public interest’ (Richardson, 2005:73) and therefore is what journalists consider more important to a news story. In this case it is in the public interest because Werritty’s position appeared to be counter to democratic principles. Journalists often determine what the main focus of their story is in this way, which illustrates how the watchdog role provides insights into working practices.
The relationship between politics and journalism is a large factor in the construction of news. In some cases it is argued that journalistic relationships with powerful political elites seriously hinder their ability to be independent and critical. One viewpoint is that: ‘Political institutions and media institutions are so deeply intertwined…that it is not easy to distinguish where one begins and the other leaves off’ (Schudson, 2003:154). This theory is exemplified in the US media handling of Israeli affairs. Robert Jensen, Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas-Austin, said in reference to U.S. coverage of Israel: ‘U.S. journalists are enmeshed in symbiotic relationships with the powerful. Instead of being independent and critical, journalists typically are dependant on policy makers and are unwilling to raise the crucial, critical questions’ (Jensen 2004). Key to this notion is that ‘interaction between sources and reporters may be routinized as a non-conflict interaction’ (Bantz, 1999:135). The first name basis of press conferences involving senior white house politicians has been cited as evidence for this viewpoint (Fisk 2004). This demonstrates how journalists can become reliant on institutions which can produce relevant material for news production regularly. This sociological phenomenon which determines the construction of news implies that some journalists working practices do not conform to the ‘watchdog of the state’ definition that is usually attributed to them. In other words it seems that ‘rather than monitoring the game of power, journalists are simply part of that game.’ (Jensen 2004).This illustrates that the political environment highlights very big insights in how some journalists operate.
Another factor in the creation of news is the policy of news organisations. It is argued that ‘every newspaper has a policy, admitted or not’ (Warren Breed, 1999:79). The existence of a policy within a news organisation suggests that journalists must cohere to this policy within their working practice. The Daily Mail newspaper is known for its anti-immigration policy and Journalists working for this paper tailor their stories to this policy. An example of this is a story from 2004 about the dispersion of asylum seekers which was framed as ‘Asylum seekers raising HIV risks’ (Associated Newspapers 2004), which focuses on a negative aspect of immigration. This demonstrates how newspaper policy can influence how journalists work.
One determent of news construction is the market in which news is sold, which has many effects on the practices of journalists. It is argued that ‘journalism is a commodity and must find a buyer in a competitive environment’ (McNair, 1998:109). Journalists are often forced to work to strict deadlines and attempt to be up to date with their reporting in order to compete with other news outlets. This is because ‘competition for public attention makes immediacy significant to the media; the laggard in news…tends to lose to rivals the esteem and attention of his audience’ (Roshco, 1999:35). This notion also gives an insight into why journalists attempt to be the first to obtain news stories as ‘the ‘scoop’ exemplifies the value to a news medium of maximising immediacy’ (Roshco, 1999:35). Journalists working practice will also be affected by the newsroom’s incentive to cater for its audience thus making the sales of its medium favourable. For example newspapers were forced to use gruesome pictures of Gaddafi’s death simply because all other newspapers had access to the images. (Guardian News and Media Limited 2012) If one newspaper had chosen to omit the images the paper would not have sold so well because of the large amount of interest in the story. The sociology of journalism seems to provide a large insight into the working practices of journalists in relation to the news market.
An external factor which determines news construction is the cultural norms of where news will be consumed. It is argued that ‘the news is the transmission of ideology of particular social groups arising out of the production process and the identified demands of the audience’ (Tumber, 65:1999) and that ‘cultural understandings and cultural practices are the key factors in understanding the form and content of journalism’ (Richardson, 2005:51). An extreme example of this is an article which appeared in Ugandan newspaper, Rolling Stone, with the headline ‘100 pictures of Uganda’s top homos leak’ which included a banner at the side reading ‘hang them’. Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and culturally frowned upon (CNN 2010). Rolling Stone editor Giles Muhame commented that ‘the aim of the newspaper is to expose the evils in our society’ (Muhame 2010). This demonstrates that journalists are strongly affected by their cultural environment and provides an insight into how culture can effect how a story is reported.
The theory that news media is a social construction of reality suggests that it is impossible for journalists to create an objective mirror of reality. Instead, according to the theory, the construction of news is dictated by the range of internal news processes and external influences which I have discussed. Hunter S Thompson, who embraced subjectivity as a proponent of gonzo journalism (Marie Kinsey, 2005:77), argued that: ‘there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms’ (Thompson 2005:44). Despite the arguments against a notion of journalistic objectivity, an attempt to remain impartial is an internal process of most news organisations and a large factor which determines how news is constructed. It has been argued that objective journalism can be described as ‘the separation of facts and opinion; a balanced account of a debate; the validation of journalistic statements by reference to authoritative others’ (McNair, 1998: 68). Under this definition Journalists should not include their own opinion while reporting the news and attempt to balance their articles with opinion from all the relevant parties. For example the iPad passport story reported by the BBC is balanced with input from a U.S. Customs spokeswoman (BBC 2012). Considering both viewpoints it seems that journalists strive to attain the appearance of objectivity, however the ability of journalists to be truly objective in practice is contested by the other factors that contribute to the construction of news. Therefore from the angle of objectivity it appears that the sociology of journalism does little to provide insight into the working practices of most journalists as the practice seems to ignore the theory.
Contextualisation of news stories is an internal process of news organisations which attempts to give the reader an insight into the background of a particular story. Context is described as information ‘provided in order to aid the readership’s understanding of a reported event’ (Richardson, 2005:48) which refers ‘to the wider social, political, historical (etc.) circumstances that the reported event may be part of’ (Richardson, 2005:48). A large element of this notion in relation to the construction of news is that the language used to project news can’t be value free. It is argued that ‘language (and the media) must be regarded as a structuring agent, rather than transmission belt which can refer directly to the world’ (Hackett 1984:236). This view suggests that the factors which dictate the construction of news detailed in this essay make a truthful re-contextualisation impossible. This also seems to denounce the notion of objectivity within journalistic working practices.
Overall it appears that the sociology of journalism is very important in providing insight into the way that journalists operate. The sociological factors which I have explained have many implications for journalistic practice. The only major deviation from this trend is the notion of journalistic objectivity within news organisations mainly because it runs counter to all the other factors which effectively denounce the notion of objectivity. For example it is argued that newspaper policy causes a ‘shelving of a strong interest in objectivity at the point of policy conflict’ (Breed, 1999:82) and that ‘the gatekeeper theory…provides an insight into the subjective nature of the news production process’ (Tumber, 1999:63). It appears that the sociology of Journalism is the key theory which offers insights into the way journalists operate as part of the larger machine of the media with many factors dictating their output. Rather than being a objective free agent ‘the journalist is a cog in a wheel over whose speed and direction he or she may have little or no control’ (McNair, 1998:62).
1. ASSOCIATED NEWSPAPERS. 2004. ‘Asylum seekers raising HIV risks’. Daily Mail [online]. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-313042/Asylum-seekers-raising-HIV-risks.html (accessed 12 January 2012)
2. BANTZ, Charles R. 1999. ‘News Organisations: Conflict as a Crafted Cultural Norm’. In Howard TUMBER (ed.). News: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. BBC. 2011. ‘’Naive’ Werritty admits mistakes over links to Liam Fox’. BBC News (online). Available at:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-16171068 (accessed 12 January 2012)
4. BBC. 2012 ‘Canada-US border crossed by man using iPad as ID’. BBC News [online]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-16403636 (accessed 12 January 2012)
5. BREED, Warren. 1999. ‘Social Control in the Newsroom: A Functional Analysis’. In Howard TUMBER (ed.). News: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press.
6. CNN. 2010. ‘UGANDA NEWSPAPER ‘ROLLING STONE’ PUBLISHES ‘GAY LIST’ [online]. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_NQu3JyRds (accessed on 12 January 2012).
7. FISK, Robert. 2004. Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land [online]. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYTvDNg4iic (accessed on 12 January 2012.)
8. FRANKLIN, Bob, Martin Hamer, Mark Hanna, Marie Kinsey and John E. Richardson. 2005. Key Concepts in Journalism Studies. London: Sage Publications.
9. GUARDIAN NEWS AND MEDIA LIMITED. 2012 ‘Gaddafi dead: the front pages – in pictures’. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/gallery/2011/oct/21/gaddafi-dead-front-pages#/?picture=380756244&index=12 [accessed 12 January 2012]
10. HACKETT, Robert A. 1984. ‘Decline of a Paradigm? Bias and Objectivity in News Media Studies” in Critical studies in mass communication. (Volume 1, Number 3).
11. JENSEN, Robert. 2004. Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land [online]. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYTvDNg4iic (accessed on 12 January 2012.)
12. MCNAIR, Brian. 1998. The Sociology of Journalism. London: Arnold.
13. MUHAME, Giles. 2010. ‘UGANDA NEWSPAPER ‘ROLLING STONE’ PUBLISHES ‘GAY LIST’ [online]. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_NQu3JyRds (accessed on 12 January 2012).
14. ROSHCO, Bernard. 1999. ‘Newsmaking’. In Howard TUMBER (ed.). News: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press.
15. SCHUDSON, Micheal. 2003. The Sociology of News. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
16. SLACK, James. 2012. ‘Migration IS killing off jobs: 160,000 Britons have missed out on employment because work was taken by foreigners’. The Daily Mail. 11 January [online]. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2084667/UK-unemployment-23-fewer-Britons-jobs-100-migrants.html [accessed 12 January 2012]
17. THOMPSON, Hunter S. 2005. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trial ’72. London: Flamingo.
18. TUMBER, Howard. (ed.) 1999. News: A Reader New York: Oxford University Press.
19. WILKINSON, Matt. 2012. ‘Looks like Rooney’s had the hairdryer treatment’ The Sun 9 January [online]. Available at: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/showbiz/bizarre/4049587/Looks-like-Rooneys-had-the-hairdryer-treatment.html (accessed 12 January 2012)