Understanding Media: The Inside Story
After completing this session, you will be able to:
- Explain the value of a free and independent press to the American
- Describe the relationship between the press and public officials.
- Describe how the press determines what is news.
This unit demonstrates the role that a free and independent press
can and does play in the American political system, serving often
as the people's watchdog. But the unit also illustrates that the
relationship between the press and public officials is also one
of mutual dependence. Finally, this unit explores what constitutes
news and how, out of the millions of things that happen each day,
only a few are reported.
The American media, sometimes referred to as the fourth estate,
can and often do serve as a valuable check on the powers of officials.
As Justice Frankfurter once said, "A free press is indispensable
to the workings of our democratic society." Frankfurter is
alluding to the fact that without accurate information about events,
people, and government policy, the public cannot make informed choices
as it participates in the democratic process.
Throughout American history the Supreme Court has interpreted the
First Amendment to mean that there are almost no restrictions
on the content of news reporting. The Constitution thus provides
the opportunity for the press to play an active role in public affairs,
even when press reports are inconvenient or embarrassing to public
officials. At their best, journalists can hold public leaders accountable
to the people. At their worst, irresponsible journalists can distort
the news in ways that are damaging to honorable people and legitimate
While the press has always enjoyed broad freedoms under the Constitution's
First Amendment, the style of news gathering and other journalistic
norms that guide the press have changed significantly over U.S.
history. In our nation's early history, newspapers were overtly
partisan tools of key interests in politics, including those that
favored states' rights, strong central government, and big business
(e.g., banks and railroads). In those early years, politicians often
created and controlled their own newspapers to promote their interests.
The circulation of these newspapers was necessarily small due to
poor transportation and the high production costs.
By the middle to late nineteenth century, newspapers were becoming
less partisan and more independent of politicians and organized
interests. But because they were increasingly dependent on mass
circulation and commercial advertising to generate profit, their
reporting style became more sensational, and the stories covered
more scandalous. Yellow journalism, which was pioneered by
prominent publishers such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph
Pulitzer, often featured graphics (e.g., comics, pictures, and colors)
designed to appeal to the fast-growing immigrant population. Muckraking
journalists, including Upton Sinclair, grabbed attention and
readership by exposing corruption (real and apparent) among the
political and business elite.
During the twentieth century, journalists began to police themselves
through the use of professional codes of practice. Reporters were
supposed to focus on the key facts, such as who, what, when, and
how. With the advent of electronic media, first with radio
and then television, news coverage increasingly went beyond basic
facts toward more interpretive stories that analyzed the
motives of political actors and the potential implications of their
actions. In addition, news reporters and broadcasters sometimes
became media celebrities who became part of the stories they
were covering. The initial appeal of radio was its ability to present
live coverage of events. But this role was supplanted by television,
which could also present dramatic pictures. As television news grew,
radio increasingly became a format for public affairs talk shows.
As their readership dropped, newspapers began adding longer news
features that explained or embellished the previous day's events.
In general, newspaper circulation has dwindled as more citizens
rely exclusively on electronic media for their news. The days of
two or more daily newspapers competing for readership in one city
are almost gone. Instead, many cities are now served by only one
daily newspaper, and often that source is part of a larger, nationally
The so-called adversarial culture of the media arose during
the 1960s. Events such as the Vietnam War and Watergate contributed
to an "us versus them" attitude that often prevails today.
People who are in the news complain that reporters are often more
interested in casting allegations of wrongdoing and less inclined
to follow up as those allegations are rebutted.
Although journalists and government officials often mistrust one
another, the relationship between the two primarily remains one
of mutual dependence. Political candidates and public officials
need the media to get their message across to the public. Journalists,
on the other hand, need candidates and public officials as sources
of news. These mutual demands lead candidates and public officials
to create pseudo-events with good visuals that will meet
reporters' needs for interesting stories. And because the costs
of investigative reporting are high, news outlets often rely on
official government briefings and news conferences for information
instead of conducting extensive independent investigations.
Most media organizations in the United States are privately owned.
Private ownership contributes to the independence of the
media from government controls. But it also means that media owners
must attract a sufficient number of viewers and readers. Increasingly,
programming decisions take into account the mass appeal of stories
and features, and the graphics that accompany them. To increase
profits, media owners buy additional media outlets. This trend has
contributed to a large consolidation of media sources such
as television and radio stations, magazines, and Web sites. Most
small, independently owned news stations and newspapers have been
bought up by larger media conglomerates such as Knight-Ridder, USA
Today, Time Warner, General Electric, Fox Broadcasting, and Disney.
Critics charge that consolidation of ownership contributes to a
homogenization of news, where most news features echo each
other, and often reflect the media and political elite's interpretation
The newest electronic source of news is the Internet, which offers
a wide range of news formats from online versions of major newspapers
and magazines to newsgroups and gossip sites. To date, the Internet
has remained unregulated in terms of the content that individuals
or groups can choose to post. Thus, this format may offset the effects
of media consolidation of ownership in print and other electronic
media formats. The potential downside to no regulation is that it
is sometimes difficult to distinguish between news that is produced
according to journalistic standards (e.g., with verification of
sources and source citations) and news that reflects rumor and unsubstantiated
The media's impact on democratic processes is complex and subject
to debate. Some critics contend that news reporters are predominantly
liberal in their outlook, and some scholarly studies support that
contention. At the same time, other studies suggest that news editors
and publishers have a more conservative outlook that often reigns
in reporters' liberalism. Typically, conservative-leaning consumers
of news media think the media is biased toward a liberal viewpoint,
while liberal-leaning consumers believe the news is too conservative.