News: Reflection or Construction of Reality?
News: Reflection or Construction of Reality?
It is difficult for news, in any form, to be a true reflection of reality, due to the many factors involved in the production of news. Human error, human interest and the fallacies of management all conspire to blur the line between truth and fiction. Potter (1998) stated that news is not something that happens; instead, news is what gets presented. We almost never see news events as they happen. Instead, we are shown the medias manufactured construction of the events. This essay aims to determine what news is, and to analyse whether or not news is able to be an accurate reflection of reality, and why.
News can be defined very simply as new information of any kind, particularly information pertaining to current events. However, not all current events can be reported in the media, and as such, only news that is considered newsworthy is able to make it into the media for dissemination to the general public. Galtung and Ruge (1970) came up with the earliest form of systematic classification for newsworthiness eleven news values, the meeting of which would make an event more likely to be reported in the news. The news values were frequency, threshold, clarity, cultural proximity, consonance, unexpectedness, continuity, composition, actions of the elite, personification and negativity. In the aforementioned system, the more points that a news story meets, the greater the chance that it will be published in the news.
To take an example of how these news values are applied in selection of a story, one just has to look at the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre towers in New York City. The news meets a large number of values, as will be explained:Threshold – The magnitude of the attacks made them relevant all over the world.
Clarity The twin towers were the victim of a vicious terrorist attack.
Cultural proximity Due to the size of the United States and its importance, everyone around the world would want to know about things that occur there.
Consonance Terrorist attacks are a threat all over the world.
Unexpectedness No one expected an attack of such daring in the heart of the third most populous city in the United States.
Negativity This news story is as negative as it gets, with terrorists killing over 2000 people.
If this concept of newsworthiness is analysed properly, taking for example the classification system that Galtung and Ruge formulated, the mercenary side of the news industries is revealed. What is chosen to appear in the news is often what will appeal to the greatest number of people. While it can be argued that this selection of news stories is done is such a way that the readers of the respective newspapers are able to read the news that is most pertinent to them, it seems somewhat convenient that this will also ensure the most sales and, as a result, the proper base from which to draw in the most advertisers.
The natural progression is that bias will creep in, perhaps unnoticed, into every news organisation, regardless of how altruistic the original intentions of the organisation may have been. Here we see the first reason why news is a construction, and not a reflection of reality. In order to keep themselves running, a news organisation must, by necessity, select the stories with the greatest appeal. As a result, Less powerful groups are given disproportionate coverage, e.g. women and minorities. Some minority groups are ignored whilst others are portrayed negatively as threats to society. (McQuail, 1987) Thus, news organizations are in a catch 22 situation, where they cannot survive unless they report what is popular, but are criticized when they do so.
It has now been established that news is biased due to the very nature of the business of news reporting, but there are also other elements which contribute to the bias of news. Fowler (1991) said that, because the institutions of news reporting and presentation are socially, economically and politically situated, all news is always reported from a particular angle. Politics plays a large part in influencing the angle of a story. News organisations would hardly wish to offend the government of their home country, especially if the country is run by an authoritarian government.
Bias would play a large part in determining that news is not, in fact, a reflection of reality, but instead a construction, based on what the reader wants and how the journalist writes the article, which brings us to the next reason why news is a construction. The sheer number of stories around the world makes it impossible for all the news to be reported, hence the selection process. However, upon completion of the selection process, the journalist must now decide the manner in which a news story is to be conveyed to the reader/viewer.
Physical limitations such as time constraints and space on the newspaper force journalists to use certain formulas to assemble the facts of a story. There are several methods available, the most common of which is the inverted pyramid formula, which structures the most important facts of a story into the first one to two paragraphs. The facts are determined by the who, what, where, when, why and how factors. There are several reasons for this. The first is that in any story, the main aim is to catch the eye of the reader, hence the storyline and the first two paragraphs must be the most interesting in order for the reader to actually want to read the rest of the article. The second is that it eases the job of the editors, as they know that should the article exceed the space given, they can simply cut off paragraphs from the bottom.
This method of organization is often applied in hard news, where readers want to get the facts quickly and easily. Other examples of methods utilized by journalists are the hourglass method, and the wall-street journal method. After finally choosing which story to cover and its formula, journalists can decide on how the story should look like to their readers. A journalist may decide to emphasise certain facts about a story to prove a point, or to omit certain facts to cover up a scandal. He might decide to go with a humorous approach to the story, or take a hard-line, serious stand.
Different approaches dictate to a journalist which facts and opinions to gather about an event. A journalist who sees an event in terms of conflict will ask questions that might not even occur to a journalist who sees the event in terms of novelty , and vice versa. (Granato, 1991) By both implementing and omitting facts from a story, or attacking a story from a certain angle, journalists are able to mould the outlook of covered news according to their perspectives.
Even without the process of editing and omitting information, journalists are hampered by the need to write a story to suit a certain number of words assigned to them by their editor, whilst editors need to cut down words on a story that is too long. This would alter the reporting process, and would invariably affect the accurate reporting of a story. As Potter, (1998) very aptly put it: while news coverage is triggered by actual occurrences, the coverage of those occurrences is influences by processes, and constraints much like fiction is. News is a creation resulting from the active selecting and interweaving of images into a processed reality.News, of course, can never give a full, accurate objective picture of reality nor should it attempt to, for such an enterprise can only serve to increase its authority and decrease people’s opportunity to “argue” with it, to negotiate with it. In a progressive democracy, news should stress its discursive constructedness, should nominate all its voices… and should open its text to invite more producerly reading relations (Fiske, 1987
)In conclusion, news cannot be a reflection of reality, simply because achieving a task like reporting news in a truly unbiased, accurate and reflective way, is a task that humans are unable to achieve, at least not as yet. Human failings such as bias, greed and laziness will always come into the picture, altering the report of the news as the news article travels through the many processes that it must go through before finally being read by a viewer. As Fiske points out however, this is not a bad thing. News reporters should not attempt to attain the impossible, but instead should concentrate on strengthening what they already have, a mildly biased platform of reporting which people are able to argue over, to support and to oppose.
Fiske, John (1987). Television Culture. London: RoutledgeFowler, R (1991). Language in the News: Discourse and Ideology in the British Press. USA: Routledge.
Granato, L. (1991). “Choosing different news values and bias” Reporting and Writing News. New York: Prentice Hall.
Galtung, J & Ruge, M (1965). “Structuring & Selecting News”, in Cohen, Stanley, & Young, Jock (1973), The Manufacture of News. London: Constable.
McQuail, Denis (1987). Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction. London: SagePotter, J.W. (1998). “What is News?” Media Literacy . London: Sage.