Have a look at the three news websites below. What kind of events and what kind of people are the main stories about? Why do you think these stories were chosen?
newsworthy, participate, abuse, accountable, advertise, common denominator, evidence, consumer, revenues, pitfall, mouthpiece, saturated, to counter, burdenHide
What makes a story newsworthy? How do media outlets, such as newspapers, cable news channels, radio, etc. decide what is news and what isn’t? How do they decide what you need to know about and what isn’t so important? To find an answer to this difficult question, it helps to understand what the role of the free press, or the fourth estate, is in a democratic society.
Role of the Press
Very broadly put, we can say that news media have three primary functions in a democracy. The first is that they have to inform citizens and voters so that they can participate in the democratic process in a better way. We can’t expect voters to do a good job voting if they are completely uninformed about what is going on in their city or town, their country and the world. Secondly, media provide a forum or arena for public debate and for competing voices and ideas to be heard. Without open media where ideas can be exchanged, citizens will have a very limited view of why things are the way they are and what they can do about it. Lastly, media perform a watchdog function. They keep an eye on powerful actors in society like the government, the military and wealthy corporations to make sure that they don’t abuse their power. By reporting on how powerful people and organizations use their power, the media can help to hold them accountable.
Entertainment, Sex, Violence and Scandals
So, based on the information above, we should have a clear picture of what kinds of stories the media should cover; serious issues that voters need to know about. However, a quick look at many popular news media outlets reveals a different picture. Many news channels prioritize more entertaining topics such as celebrities, technological gadgets, sports, fashion and the like, while giving a backseat to more “serious” news stories, stories that might be important for citizens to know about. One of the reasons why this is the case might be that many media are privately owned, and as such must earn a profit. To do so, they sell advertising time or space. And the more viewers or readers or listeners they have, the more attractive they are to advertisers, and the more money they can charge for advertising.
Some critics go so far as to claim that news media outlets have sunk to appealing to the lowest common denominators in their coverage, the things that everyone finds interesting; sex, violence and scandals. According to this view, there is a difference between what we should know about and what we want to know about, and news outlets balance between the two to varying degrees. Some evidence - for example, that the best-selling newspaper in the United Kingdom is the tabloid The Sun rather than a more serious newspaper like The Times or The Guardian - would suggest that what consumers want and what they “should” want are two different things.
Publicly and Privately Owned Media
One solution to the problem of tabloid news, some might suggest, is publicly owned media; media owned by the state and financed through taxes or fees. These media, the argument goes, do not have to rely on advertising revenues, and are therefore free to choose which stories to tell based on other, more appropriate criteria. A possible pitfall here is that a media channel owned by the government might not be independent enough to criticize the government’s policies or report its abuses of power; it might end up simply as a mouthpiece for whoever is in charge. One possible compromise might be a strong, though independent public media, combined with a number of private media channels as well.
Factors Affecting Media Coverage
Another factor that limits what news media can cover is time. In a world so saturated with media options, there is only so much time that people are willing to use on getting the news. In addition, it takes time for reporters to develop good stories, and in today’s fast-paced media world, they don’t always get the time - or money - they need. For it can be cheaper and faster to cover the latest celebrity scandal rather than a complex development halfway around the world.
Other issues that factor in the decisions of journalists and editors are:
- Timeliness: how recent is the issue?
- Graphic representation: are there compelling visual images?
- Conflict: issues with two or more clear sides are often interesting. As the saying goes: If it bleeds it leads, meaning that violence and conflict get priority coverage.
- Proximity: how close is the story to the intended audience?
News for Everyone
All in all, in today’s world with a multiplicity of news media channels, many say the question of what news issues we learn about is largely up to us. There is a channel for just about every preference, and it is not a lack of information, but rather a lack of time and ambition that sets our limits. If we don’t get the news we need, it is our own fault; media just give us what we want. Others might counter that while we as citizens have a duty to keep ourselves informed, the major news agencies still bear the largest burden to fulfill their role in our democratic society.
Watch the Video
Watch this short video and then answer the questions which follow.
- What is the subject of Alisa Millers talk?
- In 2007, which countries did the main news reports in the USA come from?
- Which big international news issues were ignored?
- Which story did the US media use most coverage on?
- Where do most Americans get their news from?
- Are Americans just not interested in world news?
- How does the news shape the way we see the world.
- The USA and Iraq
- Nuclear disarmament in N. Korea, flooding in Indonesia, IPCC meeting in Paris
- The death of Anna Nicole Smith
- From local TV news and websites like Google
- No, the number who say they closely follow world news has increased to 52%
Make Your Map
Is the news in Norway equally distorted? What view do you have of the world? Make a map which reflects your view of the world based on the media coverage you are exposed to.
- Do you think that the news media should take more responsibility and present a more balanced choice of news (serious vs. entertainment) or is this already available?
- Are people in general more interested in entertainment and sensational reports than serious issues? Why/why not?
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