Where Does Your News Come From? A Media Historian Helps Clear The Confusion

June 20, 2019

In 2018, just 35 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans surveyed by the Pew Research Center agreed with the statement, “information from national news organizations is very trustworthy.” Similarly, only 27 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of Republicans said that, “national news media do very well at keeping them informed.”

 

Many journalists assign the blame to the consumers and believe that learning “news literacy” -- a critical review of news that involves analyzing different aspects for credibility and potential bias -- is up to readers, according to the American Press Institute. However, The Institute argues that it should be up to journalists themselves to first recognize their own failures in presenting news and then to help consumers understand the process. After all, we’re the ones claiming to represent them; the least we can do is engage.

 

So, I consulted a media historian and some peer-reviewed work to explain a bit about what we do.

 

Defining “news”

While story ideas can come from anywhere -- questions about the community, press releases, direct requests for coverage from people or organizations, political topics and more -- every idea a journalist pursues will reflect one or more news values, qualities that make an event or issue worthy of being shared with the intended audience.

 

A 2016 report by media researchers Tony Harcup and Deirdre O’Neill found that most journalists considered the same 15 news values across platforms and around the world.

 

Some are fairly intuitive: most consumers will continue reading a story about something that could have a potential impact on them or their community, whether the article is about local crime, a tax raise, or a bill on the governor’s desk. Conflict, drama and entertainment also appear frequently in media and are pretty easy to identify.

 

Harder-hitting stories contain news values such as the power elite, meaning they “concern powerful individuals, organizations, institutions or corporations,” or what Harcup and O’Neill simply call bad news, defined as “stories with particularly negative overtones such as death, injury, defeat and loss.”

 

Photo: Roman Kraft on Unsplash  

 

Other common news values in today’s media may reflect negative intentions. However, Harcup and O’Neill reported that the final news value is an organization’s own agenda, “whether ideological, commercial or as part of a specific campaign.”

 

This news value is one of several that may contribute to public distrust in media. In a 2015 study, the Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of survey respondents internationally said it was “never acceptable” for the news media to favor one political position over another, compared to 25 percent who said it was “sometimes acceptable.”

 

Perceived agenda-setting may be one reason why some in the media industry feel that traditional news values are no longer the best way to decide what constitutes news. Critics argue that news values often reflect more of an organization’s own interests than those of the community.

 

For example, Harcup and O’Neill found that the rise in social media has made shareability its own news value. Journalists increasingly consider how likely a story is to go viral online or on social media when deciding whether to cover it, according to the study. The emphasis on shareability in the media world can lead to sensationalism and clickbait, alluring and dramatic headlines that link to mundane or incomplete stories.

 

News-gathering methods

Most people know that journalism is changing. The way it’s delivered has jumped from the printed page to the computer screen and to iPhone apps from there. But even in the online sphere, our preferred methods are changing; we prefer videos to the written word and interactive data to longform pieces. It makes sense that the way news is curated is changing too.

 

Media historian David Copeland is a communications professor and director of the Interactive Media graduate program at Elon University. He said news-gathering processes have developed as technology has evolved, and the intentions of reporting have changed.

 

“When newspapers became a regular feature of American society in the 1700s, the idea of reporters did not exist,” Copeland said. “News was gathered from a variety of sources: government documents, letters sent from one person to another that contained useful information, shipping manifests and the like.”

 

Citizens could submit information to the printers, he said, who then decided what to run. They often prioritized information they were paid to publish, especially in the cold months when not as many people traveled and brought news from place to place.

 

News values were different then, too. Timeliness, another major news value today, didn’t exist in the same way for much of American journalism history.

 

“If you look at colonial papers, you might think that the news was old, stale and not relevant to the audience,” Copeland said. “There may be a little truth to that, but the curation process did not depend upon information moving at the speed of light or digitally. Information moved as quickly as humans could move, meaning by ship or by horse or by carrier pigeon sometimes.”

 

As the 1800s emerged, the idea of reporters finding out information for a newspaper to print began to develop. Copeland said that during the penny press era, “people would tend to subscribe to and read the papers with the most news that was of value to them. That, of course, created rivalries among papers for which could have the best, most and even quickest news.”

 

As the timeliness news value became important for papers that wanted to stay competitive, their curation methods had to change again, too.

 

Civil War reporters began traveling with telegraphers who could send stories back to the paper at home. Wire services, collectives of reporters who find and give stories to newspapers that pay to be a part of an association, grew out of that need for speed and became a major tool that news organizations still use today.

 

The Associated Press (AP) is a prominent wire service that contributes articles to publications from The New York Times, which has an entire section on its website dedicated to the AP’s stories, to local papers.

 

 

The year 1967 marked another shift in news-gathering. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of that year granted the public the right to request access to any federal agency’s records and required agencies to disclose most information requested under FOIA within three business days, unless it was a matter of personal privacy, national security or law enforcement, according to the FOIA website.

 

Journalists have no more or fewer rights to submit FOIA requests than anyone else, although they may have some rights to reduced fees and faster service, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), a nonprofit that helps journalists access resources.

 

Information obtained through FOIA requests have helped American journalists discover and warn the public about health and safety issues, wasteful government spending, terrorist activities, the FBI harassment of civil rights leaders, government surveillance of prominent authors, and more, according to the RCFP website.

 

“With the rise of media outlets, the explosion of journalists, the power of the wire services, and the development of multiple media platforms, the idea of gatekeeping rose in our consciousness,” Copeland said. “It became the job of editors to decide what information would flow to readers and viewers.”

 

Today, these editors use contemporary news values to decide what is news. Reporters use content curation skills to find out enough information to explain what’s important based on the editors’ direction.

 

Emily Rose Thorne is a junior at Mercer University and an aspiring multimedia journalist. She’s been involved with Step Up Magazine since 2017 and is now helping guide the editorial team as Senior Editor. Previously, she interned as a journalist for both Atlanta Magazine and Girls Rock Athens. She’s also served as Staff Writer, Lead News Writer and News Editor of her campus publication, The Cluster. She is currently the Digital Editor of The Cluster and a 2019 John M. Couric Fellow at the Center for Collaborative Journalism. This summer, she'll start producing audio and writing copy for Georgia Public Broadcasting in Macon.

 

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