How have the news media and the news-hungry public changed over time?
October's Louisiana Public Square will explore the nature of news in the 21st century. How have the news media and the news-hungry public changed over time? What impact have technology, corporate mergers, demographics and social factors had on the way news is created, disseminated and acted upon?
* Bob Mann, former Director of communications for Governor Blanco, now with the LSU Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs
* Ted Power, Publisher of The Daily Advertiser, Lafayette
* Emily Metzgar, Blogger and PhD student, LSU Manship School of Mass Communication
* Jan Elkins, Community Projects Director for KTBS in Shreveport.
“Today the news is often what your audience wants, and it is what your audience will stay tuned for. I think that consumers of news need to know…that sometimes news is not actually the most important thing; the thing that’s going to actually affect you. Sometimes the news is what’s going to keep you from turning the channel and that’s an incredibly important part of being a critical audience of the news.”
Emily Erickson, Ph.D.,
Mass Communication Department, LSU
Dr. Erickson’s assessment of how the news media industry defines news in 21st century America is startling. Her “insider” definition of what news is may or may not be the majority view among broadcasters, but it seems to be at least widely held. This shift from seeing news as a source for useful – even essential – information, to seeing news as a mass marketing tool does not bode well for a nation whose form of government depends so heavily on an informed and engaged citizenry.
The news media play a critical role in American society. They educate the public and promote discussion about significant issues. And a more educated public is able to make more informed decisions that affect their governance and their daily lives. The framers of the Constitution felt that the press was so crucial to the welfare of the country that they ratified the First Amendment in 1791 to protect it. But have 21st century business practices and technology changed the role of the news media to the point that its accuracy and objectivity are compromised? And has the way we consume news changed the quality of the information we receive and even the definition of what is “news”?
The Business of News
In the early days of printing, the press was a means of individual expression, comment and criticism. Today, it has evolved into an industry that answers to stockholders and has to generate profits.
Possibly the most significant development in the news industry is the increasing level of consolidation. According to a 2001 News Media Industry Study by the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, nine massive media corporations dominate the U.S. supply of books, periodicals, movies, videos, music, radio, television and internet service. These companies include AT&T/Liberty Media, America Online-Time Warner, Disney/ABC, Viacom/CBS, Bertelsmann, Sony, News Corp, Vivendi/Seagram, and General Electric/NBC. Although this consolidation may contribute to industrial efficiency, this isn’t necessarily good for a democracy. Any movement towards a monopoly of information means that there are fewer watchdogs providing diverse views and opinions. [Since the News Media Industry Study was released, additional mega-mergers have occurred. The proposed ATT / BellSouth union recently received a green light from the Justice Department. This merger – the largest ever in the telecommunications field – could have far-reaching effects on the way the internet functions.]
In 2003 the FCC considered proposed changes that would, in effect, relax media ownership rules. In February 2003, then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell defended his decision to schedule only one official hearing in the media ownership proceeding, pointing out that the public could use the new digital technologies to communicate their views to the Commission. According to the FCC, over 500,000 comments were submitted, most of them electronically. The overwhelming majority were against relaxing the existing media ownership regulations. On June 2, 2003, the FCC adopted a Report and Order (R&O) in MB Docket 02-277 that lifted the existing media ownership rules.
* Competing for the “Scoop”
Competition among news outlets to be the “first source” to deliver the news has led to challenges to the media’s credibility. Confirming information through multiple sources in order to ensure its accuracy takes time. An extra few minutes can mean the difference between being the first with the story and losing potential advertising revenue.
* International News
With the exception of the wire services and a few major newspapers, almost every news organization in the U.S. has cut back the number of foreign correspondents and foreign bureaus. Consequently the American public has little knowledge and a very limited framework for evaluating international crises.
* Video News Releases
Streamlining of news organizations has also created fewer resources which has led more and more to the reliance on the use of Video News Releases or VNR’s. These are video packages edited and distributed like a press release to media outlets by public relations firms hired by an industry, advocacy group or even U.S. government agency. Their intent is to promote commercial products and services or shape public opinion. Former CBS correspondent Deborah Potter, who is director of the News Lab, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit dedicated to quality local television, explains that stations are tempted to use VNRs because they make meeting filling program time slots easy. "They allow newsrooms to do less of their own work without fear of running out of material before the end of the hour. It's a concern, and it ought to be a concern, frankly, for viewers if much of the material that they're starting to get on the news isn't news," she said.
Because VNRs are crafted to have the look and feel of actual news reports, they are indistinguishable from “the news.” The only way a viewer would know that they are seeing a PR message rather than journalism is if the broadcaster clearly identifies the VNR. That’s why the Code of Ethics of the Radio and Television News Directors Association [RTNDA] admonishes its members to “Clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by outsiders.
In May, 2005, Barbara Cochran, president of RTNDA, wrote in the Association’s newsletter:
“The VNR is just one way in which government, corporations and others try to influence the content of news, and this attempt to influence news content is not the exclusive domain of one political party. Journalists must keep a sharp eye out for practices that could undermine the independence of their reporting. Fake news has no place in real news.”
Unfortunately, fake news continues to find a place in real news. This past August, the FCC issued 42 letters of inquiry to 77 broadcast licensees – including four in Louisiana – to determine whether the source of video news releases was properly disclosed during news broadcasts.
According to a 2004 Report released by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, where Americans regularly get their news is changing. While local TV news remains the primary source at 59% along with daily newspaper readership at 42% and the radio at 40%, more viewers are now regular cable news channel viewers - 38% - than network news viewers – 34%. The other notable change is a rise in online news consumption. About three-in ten (29%) Americans now report they regularly go online to get news. Blogs, or web-based dairies created by internet users can also be sources for news. Blog readership shot up 58% in 2004 with much of the attention focusing on blogs that provided information on that year’s political campaign. But the accuracy and balance of blog sites created by sometimes anonymous users is a constant issue. The credibility of a Louisiana “political news service” blog came under scrutiny in the recent Secretary of State election when it was discovered its operator was a paid consultant for one of the candidates.
As the dissemination and consumption of the news has been evolving, the field of media literacy education has emerged in response. Among its goals is to make news consumers more critical in analyzing and evaluating the information they collect so they can be more engaged citizens. Emily Erickson with the Louisiana State University Mass Communication Department points out some key questions to ask when consuming news.
- Is what you are consuming actual hard news, commentary or news analysis?
-Who is the source of the news you are receiving? Are they attributed or anonymous? Are there multiple sources? Are they trustworthy?
- Is more than one side of the story being portrayed?
- How is the decision as to what to cover being made? Is the information being presented truly important to you or is it only being reported because the media outlet has good video or images of the event?
As new technology improves access to and transportability of news, the drive to protect the news from biased and inaccurate information will fall more and more upon the consumer. Besides using a critical eye and ear, “letters to the editor”, opposing editorials and feedback to news stations and advertisers may become the weapons in the next battle for a free press. ■
Much of this document was excerpted from the following report:
News Media Industry Study by Industrial College of the Armed Forces
For more information on the issue of news and news literacy, please visit the following sites:
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Center for Media Literacy
The Center for Media and Public Affairs
Pew Research Center Report: Where Americans Go for News, 2004.
Pew Research Center Report: Public More Critical of the Press, But Goodwill Persists, 2005.
New York Times guide to reading the news