In my continuing effort to reduce the amount of residual paper in my files, I recently unearthed a presentation for the Caribou Branch of the American Association of University Women that contained a few ideas with relevance today. It’s hard to imagine life before the Internet, but not long ago I was commenting on news reporting unaffected by Twitter or Facebook. Here’s an edited excerpt from the thoughts AAUW members heard in the mid-1990s.
“Three trends I find disturbing in mass media relate to both print and broadcast, and to each other. They are disturbing because they contribute to a lack of information about things we need to know — what I call holes in the agenda.”
What do I mean by “agenda?” Mass media might not tell us what to think, but they tell us what to think about. They decide what to report and what not to report — what is and is not news. They set the agenda.
News is determined not only by what is selected, but also by its placement in the media —the position of a story and the size of its headline on a newspaper page; where a story falls in the sequence of reports on the evening news. We are led to determine what is and is not important by the emphasis a story receives.
The first disturbing trend affecting news reporting is the decline of reading in North America. In a keynote speech to the Society of Professional Journalists in 1995, radio host Garrison Keillor cited a report that found 50 percent of Americans are only functionally literate. They can read well enough to get around in our society, but cannot sit down and enjoy reading a book, newspaper or magazine. Fifty percent.
This trend has created problems for American newspapers, and Keillor contended newspapers were doing all the wrong things to solve them. Instead of writing compelling stories that affect people’s lives, they were using focus groups and consultants to tell them what they should cover. The result was more soft news and entertainment, at the expense of hard news, which we might not want to hear, but need to know.
This leads to the second trend in mass media that troubles me: a redefinition of news. Both newspapers and television are blending news and entertainment.
Newspapers run feature stories on page 1. They are excellent, well-researched stories with nice graphics that deserve to be in the paper, but when they appear on page 1, where we look for news, we should ask what was pushed inside, left out or not covered.
In the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, news was considered a public service, an obligation. Reporters and networks competed to report information people needed to know to be responsible citizens. News was valuable in its own right because it existed to serve the public — at any cost.
The shift to news as entertainment began in 1986 when the three major broadcast networks were bought out by larger corporations and news programs had to compete with entertainment to show profits.
ABC became part of Capital Cities, later Disney (also into movies). NBC was bought by General Electric (also into aerospace). CBS was bought by Laurence Tisch (owner of Loews hotels) and later by Westinghouse.
News was expensive and less cost-effective than entertainment (stuff people wanted to see). News budgets and staffs were slashed and news programs took on qualities of entertainment shows.
News lost its stature as a public service when it was rated on its ability to produce revenue instead of its ability to provide information.
Of course, since 1986, buyouts have been epidemic and the effects are even more disturbing. Mass media are tightly embedded in America’s corporate structure, which affects not only what we see, but also, more importantly, what we don’t see. These holes in the agenda are caused by my third and biggest concern — the consolidation of media ownership.
Concentration of media ownership into fewer and bigger corporations not only places news in a system dedicated to profits, but also reduces the number of perspectives presented. News that does not serve the purpose of corporations — not just individual companies, but the whole corporate structure — is less likely to receive emphasis, if it is reported at all.
The decline in reading and the blending of news and entertainment make it possible for these holes to exist — for people to miss news entirely, or to think they are getting it when they are not.
Members of the boards of directors of large corporations form linkages among companies that have subtle effects upon news. At one time, the board of directors of media conglomerate Time Warner included the CEOs of Philip Morris, Colgate-Palmolive and Xerox. When General Electric owned NBC, its board included chief executives of Pepsico, Goodyear, Kimberly-Clark and International Paper.
Companies become fused with each other through the people on their boards in what media critic Ben Bagdikian calls “interlock.”
The effects are subtle. Overt censorship is rare, though Bagdikian gives some startling examples in his book The Media Monopoly. From the top down, people are hired to preserve the corporate ethic.
Gradually, self-censorship infects the news organization. Staff members inclined to report news unflattering to media owners, or to other companies represented on their boards, receive little support.
The economy driven by this corporate structure is based on continuous growth, which requires consumption of goods and services, far in excess of our needs. Much of this growth is fed by natural resources from all over the world.
To keep this system functioning, the public must believe everything is OK. News to the contrary is not welcome, even though it might be more important than the entertaining news audiences prefer.
Even though these three trends threaten the quality of news, there is room for optimism. Intelligent, courageous reporters and editors committed to seeking and telling the truth still exist. Alternatives to mainstream media continue to ask hard questions and deliver in-depth reports.
And there are still journalism students, like those in my classes at the University of Maine, committed to social justice and environmental awareness with high aspirations for what they can achieve. I see them using their talents to give their audiences the information they need to be responsible citizens in a democracy.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.