News is a genre of mass media content resulting from journalists’ information gathering and editors’ decisions and following professional practices and norms. News is the product of teamwork in media outlets. According to functional-structural social theory, news content is information that seeks to meet social needs by observing the natural and human universe in order to help people survive in their physical and social world. News is the product of mass media, which began with the printing press and later developed into radio, television, and the Internet. The main critical question regarding news is whether there is a consensus on how news is defined and who creates and controls news production and news content. Is it the media proprietors, the government, interested sources, political and/or economic social and cultural elites, the hegemonic majority, public relations agencies, spokespersons of the business community, advertisers, journalists/editors, or the audience and the public?
Some theories and critics credit the end product of news to one or more of the related actors in defining, producing, and disseminating mass media news. Other theories are concerned with the organizational and social environment, and the constraints of news production. Some address media and communication technologies or news sources. Some scholars believe in the good intentions of the actors and explain imperfect or unprofessional outcomes by revealing the constraints of news production, while others attribute imperfections to ill-meaning actors who deliberately bias news to suit their goals, with news the product of conspiracy and manipulation based on ideology or other political, economic, and social interests. The five main components of the system of news production and dissemination are: (1) journalists and news editors (producers and decision-makers); (2) media organizations (the organizational, professional, and social framework); (3) the social systems in which journalists and media organizations operate (the political/economic/idiosyncratic and universal culture/legal systems); (4) the news product; and (5) the news audience/ consumers.
Views on the News
News can be examined from four main viewpoints by the participants in news consumption and production concerning these major components. First, the audience-needs perspective relates to ideas on the meaning of news and its production, and normative expectations of what news should be and how it should meet the public’s needs (not as consumers or advertisers). Second, the journalists-as-professionals perspective involves insights, perceptions, and opinions on the professional process and finished product. Third, the intellectual perspective concerns the opinions and criticism of news by intellectuals in and outside academia. Intellectuals provide the normative definitions of what news should contain and how it can respond to important social needs. It focuses on the “watchdog” role of the media in a democracy and the special role of the news in providing public information and criticism of the government and its organs. And, fourth, the academic-theoretical and research perspective examines the conceptual constituents of news and explains news and its social implications. Research aims to corroborate or refute the intuitive insights of the other three perspectives.
News theories stem from sociology, psychology, and social psychology. They examine newsroom decision-making, professional socialization, and news creation and production. Some research uses participatory observation, quantitative and qualitative surveys of journalists and editors, and product content analysis. Other studies perform sociological surveys to map journalists’ social and educational characteristics and professional training and attitudes, in an effort to understand professional decisions (Weaver 1998). Other studies survey the psychological needs of journalists, and conclude that journalists’ decisions reflect a desire for social validation of perceptions of reality and reinforcement of stereotypical beliefs. The journalist’s reference group is mostly other journalists and the media. Contrary to the popular myth, they tend to prefer publishing predictable items and news published by others (Donsbach 2004). Zelizer (1993) sees journalists as a community of commentators and a source of reinforcement of decisions and interpretations of reality.
What Makes News?
The first academic research to pose the question “what is news?” was as early as 1920. In his pioneering work, Walter Lippmann (1922) sought to see news as something that could be described as a “natural phenomenon.” Lippmann believed that news had certain characteristics that made it news and as such different from other phenomenon. He saw journalists as scientists, working with a mental guide (like a plant guide), applied to observations of physical and social reality helping assess what is and is not news. This requires certain steps that resemble the steps scientists or judges take to evaluate facts and determine the truth. A related approach is to assign qualifications criteria to phenomenon, which decide what makes events “news.” Events can thus be defined as “news” based on inherent factors: news factors and their news values. Following the seminal study by Galtung and Ruge (1965) to determine the structure of foreign news coverage and the role of news agencies in the process, studies continued to map the factors that define events as news in general and foreign news in particular. Harcup and O’Neill (2001) contributed an accurate map to this discussion of the news factors that influence coverage selection. The ten factors they identified include a fresh presentation of some of the twelve factors suggested by Galtung and Ruge (e.g., negativity, celebrity, audience relevance, and follow-up). Shoemaker and Cohen (2006) took this approach a step further by seeking common cross-cultural factors helping to predict the end product of news. They identified two primary criteria that classify events as newsworthy: deviance (often negative) of the event from the norm, and social significance.
News as a Product
Contrasted with the “natural” approach to news, other approaches conceive of news as a product of actions by interested parties, ranging from journalists’ independent and regular sources through sources with vested interests that leak scandals (Molotch & Lester 1974), to public relations agents who actually “create events.” Today, professionals who create and exaggerate events for commercial and political clients are called spin doctors. Boorstin (1964) described spin as pseudo-events, and argued that they already constitute the lion’s share of the news.
Research has investigated the media outlet, the journalist’s work and workplace, and the journalists’ and editors’ roles as “gatekeepers” of news selection and producers of the media’s view of social reality. News selection occurs on several levels and journalists have professional guidelines and standards that mediate their subjectivity. They function within media organizations, each with its own priorities, in a matrix of other organizations. Media organizations also function in the wider social sphere of “the social institution of communication,” with its reciprocal relations and influence by other social institutions (the “social system”): the political, economic, and cultural institutions or fields. Shoemaker and Reese (1996) proposed a hierarchy of influences model, ranging from individual media workers to larger societal forces affecting the news message (Reese 2001).
Main Theoretical Approaches to the Study of News
The theoretical approaches to news vary widely. The normative professional-functional approach focuses on news production, and argues that although journalists and editors follow professional norms, the economic, political, and cultural environment for news distorts the end product. Constraints on editors and journalists, not conspiracies or manipulation, account for any news bias. A general political-economic approach argues that news is used by capital and government to maximize business and political interests.
More critical approaches, including Marxist and neo-Marxist, regard news as a capitalist tool for preserving the social and economic status quo, and ask the question of whether the news helps explain and clarify events in the real world or mystifies and obscures them. The Glasgow University Media Group analyzed news on strikes, the Falklands, and nuclear defense, as well as other political and work relations issues (Glasgow University Media Group 1985), while others researched the news coverage of the new left movements in the US (Gitlin 1980). Among the way news helps governments to survive, in this view, is to provide alarming news, destabilizing the public’s sense of personal safety – and for journalists to survive, they must, in this view, adapt to the system’s demands (Herman & Chomsky 1988).
A cultural approach recognizes the many different ways news can be presented, even within capitalist organizations and nation-states. The media, for example, treat events differently, depending on whether a conflict is internal (concerning the media’s nation-state) or external (not concerning the media’s nation-state; Cohen et al. 1990; Nossek 2004).
According to some schools, the audience is a passive consumer, manipulated by media owners, and offered increasingly soft news stories or infotainment. However, recent approaches (see, for example, Wall 2005) recognize that audiences are increasingly active in producing news via the Internet, photos, video footage, mobile phones, etc., and might change the definition of news as a product of media outlets and journalistic professional norms and news work.
News as Professional and Cultural Narratives
There are two basic forms of narrating news: the chronicle and the story. Chronicle serves an informational function, presenting details of an occurrence in a direct fashion, providing a basic record of society’s goings-on. Story, on the other hand, involves more of an entertainment function that couches information as something akin to the folklorist’s work (Bird & Dardenne 1988; Nossek & Berkowitz 2006). Story is most like the cultural narrative, blending past cultural meanings with present events.
News as a professional narrative involves two important factors: journalistic practices and cultural background. First, professional journalism has a professional ideology of objectivity, with norms and procedures to eliminate subjective bias – supposedly presenting only the facts (Schudson 2001). Ironically, these norms produce a consistently stylized form of news. Journalists learn to polarize issues and define their parameters as they gather information from “expert” sources – sources with allegedly factual rather than self-interested information (Shoemaker & Reese 1996). Studies of journalists’ role perceptions show a close but distinct relationship between their professional and domestic-cultural attitudes (Weaver 1998). Journalists use news frames to create instant meaning for the data they collect, which they organize into stories comprehensible to their audiences (Entman 1991). The second factor in professional narrative is cultural context. As part of their cultural role as storytellers, journalists “manufacture” news by tapping into cultural narratives. Journalists are both part of their culture and its storytellers. They construct narratives based on conventions that resonate culturally with them personally and their audiences.
Cultural narratives are also referred to as “myths,” enduring yet dynamic conceptions of society, its social institutions, and values (Lule 2001). They are stories with identifiable narrative structures (Roeh 1989). They resonate culturally because they suggest meaning to the present in terms of the past in a way that will have impact on the future (Nossek & Berkowitz 2006). Myths are marked by definable narratives, which are familiar, acceptable, and reassuring to their host culture and can also be interpreted as ideological forms – cultural symbols evoking taken-for-granted interpretations about what a society has been and should be.
Alternative Forms of News
Although much of news originates from within large media organizations, alternative forms are widely available. The underlying premise of “alternative news” is that media ownership, with its bias toward capital and government, is an impassible barrier to news of public importance. Editors and journalists cannot operate independently according to their professional norms and ethics. Therefore, the only way to produce and distribute adequate news is by alternative routes: through media that is not subject to ownership, capital, or government interests and/or control, where journalists do not owe their livelihood to these groups or consider them part of the establishment. Also called community, development, civic, and peace news, the idea is that it is possible to change the quality of news by curtailing the role of the “gatekeepers” or by re-educating journalists and editors to seek alternative criteria for identifying and publishing “good,” “constructive,” or “positive” news. The main question in regard to these activist approaches to the news is the extent to which this kind of journalism and news production is possible as a permanent and visible product.
The growing phenomenon of open news publication is a transparent, interactive process of creating, producing, and reading news (Platon & Deuze 2003). Journalists and audiences work together creating, editing, and distributing news, with no commitment to a single truth or to following up items, yet coexisting with professional journalists as the formal gatekeepers of conventional news organizations. Interestingly, research shows that despite the promise of openness and freedom, “open” sites are still censured and each organization has a way of dealing with articles considered problematic (Platon & Deuze 2003).
Media Globalization and the Definition of Foreign News
Following changes in the world communication map and the advent of new media technologies, especially the advent of global news channels, it has been necessary to reassess foreign news flow. Thus, for example, the focus in foreign news on issues perceived as “bad news” is most marked in the west’s coverage of the third world. Regarding foreign news flow, a study from the late 1970s initiated by UNESCO stressed two important findings. First, it found that most foreign news coverage was political, economic, and security related (“hard” news; it also established that most actors in foreign news items were political figures). Second, it identified a “continent-based orientation.” The study also exposed a consistent imbalance in international coverage, with the United States and western Europe as the main producers of news, developing countries appearing mainly in the context of tension and crisis, and vast geographical regions receiving no coverage at all (Sreberny & Stevenson 1999).
A follow-up study of some 40 countries was conducted over a two-week period in September 1995. This International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) sponsored study investigated whether changes since the 1970s had affected foreign news flow. The comparison showed similar localization trends despite the persistent increase in global information sources. Although news organizations use new technologies to communicate information, they still tackle foreign news from a local angle. This indicates an inherent bias in foreign news reporting resulting from the local “lenses” that news editor “gatekeepers” use (Nossek et al. 2007).
Current Research and Prospects
Current research asks whether new types of events (e.g., new kinds of political violence, especially atomic, biological, and chemical warfare, terrorist attacks, and the enormous number of casualties in dramatic attacks such as those of 9/11), new media technologies, economic globalization, media outlets, and audiences will change the traditional definitions of news (see, for example, Katz 1992, on the CNN effect on the news coverage of the Gulf War of 1991).
Potentially, new communication technologies allow journalists a more meaningful role not only in shaping the news agenda, but in influencing the orientation of news stories. Another question is whether news will cease to be a product of professionals and media outlets and become an interactive process produced by audiences with no editors or censors, but with no control or accountability for its evidential truths, as is the case of blogs and bloggers on the Internet, writing their personal stories and observations as news (Singer 2003).
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