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Using information from the items and elsewhere, assess the sociological arguments against the view that the news is a ‘window on the world’.
It is perhaps correct to state that TV News has probably become the most common source of information that we rely on to gain knowledge about life outside our day to day experiences. News broadcasts are conscientiously handled to give a sense of seriousness and reliability; however some critics have suggested that it is a manufactured and manipulated product involving a high degree of selectiveness and bias. If so, is it possible for TV News to be still seen as a ‘window on the world’?
Instead of being an impulsive reaction to world events, many reports are planned well in advance. According to Schlesinger (1978), the news diary enables journalists and broadcasters to plan their coverage, and select and book relevant ‘experts’. It also allows them to purchase news items from press agencies and also receive press releases from pressure groups, government agencies, private companies and individuals, all of whom wish to publicise their activities which could mean that the needs of these advertisers are made central when decisions about the content of the media are finalised. This happened when there were suspicions that the link between smoking and lung cancer was slow to be reported because of the importance of tobacco companies’ advertising.
The time of a news broadcast and who is thought to be watching, or the readership profile of a paper, will also influence the selection of news. It is assumed that at lunchtime TV programme is likely to be aimed at women or pensioners, and early evening programming is likely to be aimed at schoolchildren as those are the groups of people most likely to be watching television at that particular time of day. These institutions have a public image which they need to maintain in order to attract their audience and it is what is wanted and expected. The News of the World, for example, thrives on over-reported sex and scandal which must be catering to some audience in demand of this type of news. News producers are desperate to be the first to ‘break the news’ and will go to great measures to get what they need in order to sell. Accepting ‘evidence’ from sources without appropriately checking its reliability can lead to a biased view in favour of the official side of the argument.
Financial considerations and resources available can also influence the news. The point at which the news company’s financial year-end falls can affect how, and even whether, costly news items are covered. ITN had spent most of their 1991 overseas budget covering the Gulf War when news of the protests in Tiananmen Square broke and so were unable to capture some of the most memorable images of the decade. For this reason and the availability of space and time, sometimes stories are included or excluded simply because they need to be formed into a logical and consistent bulletin containing a number of items that will take exactly the same amount of time to put across each day.
‘We do our best to give a clear picture of what is going on. In that sense the news is ‘a window on the world,’ explains an anonymous journalist in 2000, ‘Of course we cant include every detail, or interview every person involved, we try to cover stories in a way that will interest and inform them.’ Journalists’ work is often referred to as gate keeping, where they must make decisions by using a number of news values identified by Galtung and Ruge (1973) to determine what is and is not ‘newsworthy’. According to these sociologists, events that are dramatic and negative in their consequences, events that can be considered extraordinary, personalised or concerning important figures become newsworthy and cross the ‘gate’ to become news. Gatekeepers have the power to control what is seen in the news thus curtaining the window on the world and not allowing us to see the depth and broad variety of news from all around.
The Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) has carried out content analysis for many years which involves detailed analysis of the language and visual images used by the media. Along with the traditional Marxists, they argue that all of the news selection is deliberate and the result of conscious manipulation.
They have found that the media constantly reflects the familiar theory of the powerful in society, whilst marginalising the view of others. It may indicate a white, male, middle-class viewpoint, as many people in the media are drawn from these social backgrounds. There is a hierarchy of credibility whereby only certain groups are asked for their opinion, as they are seen to be more reliable and their remarks more valid. Protesters’ tactics are more likely to be reported than their views, experts and establishment figures are more popularly heard than ordinary people. This can be displayed as only a small fraction of the window overlooking the great big world.
As a final approach to this question, in contrast to all the conclusions made about media being manipulated in accordance with powerful authorities, the pluralist view, argue that the news reflects the full diversity of viewpoints in society and that certain views will dominate in each situation, whereby the bias is usually inconsistent. The work of the GUMG shows that the media do not just reflect public opinion but that they also provide an agenda for the public, so that people think about issues in a way that benefits the ruling class and help maintain the capitalist system. In this respect the media are a powerful ideological influence and so news cannot be a ‘window on the world’ if what we are looking through, is a blurred reality.