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The communication of news has been part of a storytelling tradition since time immemorial. Storytelling to a recurring public is a way of making common sense of the environment. Stories and news about people, friends, and relatives have always passed through the grapevine. Both news and rumor give nourishment for social discourse; something that can be adapted to local experiences in the company of a small group of familiar faces.
1. Deﬁnition And Background
In its modern and more formal usage ‘news’ refers to certain types of texts produced by the personnel, institutions, and methods of news media. The news media today include news agencies, newspapers, news magazines, radio and television, and Internet services. Each medium has its own form linked to some means of presentation, which is peculiar to their dominant technology of dissemination. However, news journalism also has some common features of content, irrespective of medium, based on similar methods of choosing stories, retrieving information, and of presenting facts effectively.
A discussion over what are the typical contents of ‘news’ has been a part of news sociology for as long as the subﬁeld has existed, i.e., since the 1960s. There is not as yet any widespread agreement as to the number and kind of criteria. But researchers emphasize some qualities of news texts more often than not. News is supposed to tell something that has really happened recently, to be important for the nation or for the community, and to interest a substantial part of the audience. Thus Mitchell Stephens (1997, p. 9) deﬁnes news as ‘new information about a subject of some public interest that is shared with some portion of the public.’ Brian McNair (1998, p. 4) stresses that ‘news claims to be (i.e., is presented to its audience as) truthful statement about, or record of, some hitherto unknown (new) feature of the actual, social world.’
Even so, journalists thrive on rumor but do not necessarily publish all that they hear. Different media may differ in what they consider a threshold for what can be made public; sometimes depending on their means of presentation, the risk of litigation, or on the ideals of journalism media adhere to. News in popular tabloids differs in many respects from news in television and in the quality press.
News as a social habit existed before the ﬁrst newspaper appeared in Antwerp during a siege of the city in 1605, and even before the printed word. Tidings, rumor, and bits of information from near and far away could be learned at certain places: in the corners of a village square, in postal offices, in coffee houses and taverns, in front of churches, at the harbor, in parks etc. Gazetta was the name of a small Venetian coin for the price of which you could purchase a newssheet carrying commercial and other news at the Rialto Bridge in seventeenth century Venice. From the sixteenth century, and long into the nineteenth century, ﬂysheets provided stories comparable to the sensational tabloid news of today: romantic, adventurous, and melodramatic events; supernatural phenomena; the royal court; executions, wars, and witchcraft etc.
Regularly published newspapers, usually weeklies, were established at the beginning of the seventeenth century in England, the American colonies, Holland, Denmark etc. They were operated by jobbing printers who also doubled as postmasters and booksellers. Since few, if any, journalists were employed, printers took their news generally from other publications, mostly from the capital, from foreign newspapers, and from letters to the editor. With regularity of publication newspapers could report continuing stories, largely as a series of minor incidents successively published. Early newspapers almost exclusively used foreign news. Censorship or the threat of censorship made local news more dangerous to publish. Over time, as censorship was eased or lifted, national news stories became a more important part of the news content (Wilke 1987).
Periods in national media histories are sometimes linked to major changes in media technologies, in economy, and to the size of the audience, which can be compared, cross-nationally to some extent. Periodization of the developing style and content of journalism is often linked to changes in the political system where the causal links are sometimes evident, sometimes unclear. Commonly used labels in media histories are the early elite press, the party press, the mass press, national public service vs. commercial broadcasting etc.
The development of journalism was, until the mid-nineteenth century, closely bound to the book trade, in content as well as in authors. As the press expanded in terms of the number of fully employed journalists, journalism became more distinct. Divergent and seemingly contradictory trends have been observed cross-nationally. However, a general trend seems to be toward more variety in journalistic genres and methods of expression, especially after radio and television became the fastest news media. In the USA and in many countries of Europe two basic styles of journalism has been identiﬁed since the mid-nineteenth century, one discursive and another sensational. There is simultaneously a tendency toward a ‘long journalism’ with a slightly ‘top-down’ perspective, and another toward a more grassroots-oriented ‘bottom-up’ populist perspective.
The ﬁrst trend has produced stories set within a wider frame of time and space. In a study of worklife journalism, criminal and accident reporting in New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Oregonian between 1894 and 1994, Barnhurst and Mutz (1997) demonstrated that reporting developed toward longer stories, wider contexts, and more analysis. The ‘journalists identiﬁed individuals less often by name and more often by demographic group’ (Barnhurst and Mutz 1997, p. 41). Many events nowadays do not become newsworthy unless they ﬁt into ‘a longer body of interpretations and themes’ (Barnhurst and Mutz 1997, p. 41). This development has been possible by the mobilization of substantial journalistic resources, which again is dependent upon advertising revenues and upon some ownership concentration in the audience market.
The other trend—mainly for apolitical tabloids— has been toward spot news as entertainment: centered both on ordinary individuals and on celebrities set within dramatized events where persons, actions, and feelings are foregrounded. Benjamin H. Day, pioneer of the tabloid genre from the 1830s, said that ‘News, properly so called … must generally tell of wars and ﬁghtings, of deeds of death, and blood, of wounds and heresies, of broken heads, broken hearts, of accidents by ﬁre or ﬂood, a ﬁeld of possessions ravaged, property purloined, wrongs inﬂicted, rights unavenged, reputations assailed, feelings embittered, and oppressions exercised by nations, communities, or individuals’ (quoted in Huntzicker 1999, pp. 14–15). This tabloid formula seems to have been employed in urban boulevard newspapers in all kinds of political systems except the totalitarian ones.
2. The News Paradigm
Social scientists often use changes in technology as an index of wider social developments. Thus, the electric telegraph—invented in 1844—and the practice of news agencies have served a wide range of explanations of why and how journalism has changed since the mid-nineteenth century. This infrastructure is said to produce alternately: the 24-hour news cycle, the ‘inverted pyramid form’ of presentation, and ‘objectivity’ in journalism. Jurgen Wilke (1984) found e.g., that between 1856 and 1906 reported events that had occurred in the past 24 hours increased from 11 percent to 95 percent in the German press. The international news agencies like Reuters have been described as pioneers of neutral reporting and of the ‘lead’ or the inverted pyramid form (Read 1999). Likewise, Donald Shaw (1967) explained the alleged fall of the party press in the USA in the 1880s as a result of the increasing use and dependence on wired and politically neutral news by the newspapers. Many of these explanations have been challenged recently as technological determinism, ignoring journalism as a genuinely cultural phenomenon following its own trajectory.
Richard Kaplan (1997) found, for example, that the fall of the party press in Detroit did not coincide with the increased use of wired news. Michael Schudson (1978) interpreted the rise of ‘objectivity’ in journalism as inﬂuenced by a philosophical pragmatism in contemporary USA at the beginning of the twentieth century and by a detached professionalism in a growing number of occupations at the time. The canon of ‘objectivity’ became current in the late 1920s. But even by the turn of the twentieth century establishing facts was an ideal in journalism. ‘Objectivity’ in addition asked for balanced facts and opinions, which required new discursive practices.
The US newspaper industry had an unprecedented growth between 1880 and 1920 with widely expanding circulation, which included new layers of society in the informed public. In combination with previous breakthroughs in paper and print technology—which made cheap copy prices possible—it transformed the press into our ﬁrst mass medium. The working environment and the job deﬁnition of reporters as different from writers changed rapidly (Schudson 1995), and the audience easily became strangers as the circulation area expanded. ‘Journalists were thus becoming something of a separate class, a separateness indicated by increasing numbers of articles and lectures by journalists intended to explain how the press worked’ (Dicken-Garcia 1989, p. 230).
This was also a time ripe with experiments in journalism. The various ideals, values, criteria, deﬁnitions, etc., which were eventually assimilated into the modern idea of proper news, became a way of thinking in journalism from the beginning of the twentieth century. Høyer (1995) constructs a ‘news paradigm’ out of ﬁve distinct elements emerging in this period: (a) the event, (b) the idea of neutral news criteria, (c) the news interview, (d) the inverted pyramid method of presentation, and (e) objectivity. This combination of journalistic methods and genres appeared gradually as separate social and cultural inventions over a period of less than 50 years. The location of most innovations was New York and London, which were also centers of applied modern newspaper technology in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The ﬁve elements can be speciﬁed as follows:
(a) The event may be deﬁned as an interaction, an accident, a meeting, a crime etc. which ideally shall begin and end between deadlines. With regular news services and the electric telegraph the time frame of a new event became the 24-hour publication cycle.
(b) News criteria are the use of nonsubjective criteria for the selection of news to be published.
(c) The news interview has now become the main method of collecting information. It is a peculiar kind of conversation where the information source feels obliged to respond to inquiries, without the journalist responding psychologically since the journalsist is talking on behalf of a third—silent but more important—part: the public. This form of interview became widespread in the US press during the 1870s and 1880s and was at ﬁrst met with outright disdain from the elite, since it gave newspapers more control of what should become public news (Schudson 1994)
(d) The ‘inverted pyramid’ is a rhetorical form. It became a standard from the 1890s. The inverted pyramid emphasizes fast and short presentation of the event, in the headlines and especially in the opening paragraph of the story, known as the ‘lead.’ The lead contains the major facts and actors involved. The net result of this method was stories lacking an internal chronology with implied explanations. Stories were supplied with chronologies turned downside up, and written in a dry and down-to-earth style of language, hiding the journalist as the author responsible for the story. By the ﬂexibility of computer technology the lead technique in presentation has recently been modiﬁed. Graphics, frames for facts and summaries of previous events etc., serve as satellites to the main story, and allow the journalist to start closer to the chronological beginning of the reported event.
(e) Objectivity—or more succinctly ‘balance’ of information from contending sources of information—is obtained by using many different authorities as sources. The number and variety of information sources attributed is sometimes given as the operationalized deﬁnition of ‘objectivity’ in journalism. This form of neutrality is different from the scientiﬁc or philosophical idea of objectivity, where the quality of data is methodically evaluated and intersubjectively controlled by repetitive tests.
The ‘omnibus’ newspaper became the arena for these diverse innovations; it became the answer to a growing heterogeneity of newspaper readers and to their diversity of interests. Increased advertising, cheap newsprint, etc. allowed for more space for journalism and for typographical experiments. The sum of stories is implicitly supposed to tell the most important of the latest events.
There are some apparent interconnections between the diverse elements of the news paradigm. The electric telegraph, which inspired the 24-hour news cycle, also gave a time frame for news stories to be fresh and new, which subdued long-winded histories with complex cause and effects linkages. The event by deﬁnition became something that happened in a very short time. The emphasis on actuality, variety, brevity, and speed easily inspires the inverted pyramid form of presentation. When facts, events, and drama are foregrounded without any explicit interpretation by the journalist, the trustworthiness of facts and opinions becomes essential. The main method of gaining authority or ‘objectivity’ in journalism became the news interview of expert and elite information sources.
3. Diachronic And International Perspectives
The technology and economics of news production soon spread to many countries, while the diffusion of ‘the news paradigm’ lagged behind. The marked expansion in circulation between 1880 and 1920 observed in the USA has e.g., been documented in Denmark, Finland, and Norway (Thomsen 1972, Tomilla 1988, Hoyer 1995). Scattered data suggest that it took several more decades before the USinspired news paradigm became widely adapted in most European countries, except for the UK. In 1905 and 1908 major newspapers in Copenhagen and Stockholm respectively adopted ‘American journalism’ (Marzolf 1982), while Jean Chalaby (1996) suggests the 1930s for France. Countries like Spain and Russia lagged even further behind for obvious reasons. The local press seems to lag behind the major cities everywhere. The historical geography of changing journalism is different from the changing media technology, even if the diffusion process has not yet been mapped out in more detail.
The most common reason given for this cultural lag between the Anglo-American world, Scandinavia, and Continental Europe is the strong tradition of a party press following a sustained period of censorship. In France and the Germanies, for example, the original ideal of a journalist was the mature gentleman of the press—the redakteur—commenting on the affairs of the world and interpreting trends in politics, arts and science from a given philosophical position (Esser 1998). With regard to Central and Eastern Europe, Owen V. Johnson (1999, p. 8) points to how journalism overlapped with politics and literature from the latter half of the nineteenth century to the Soviet period. Young writers made their living as newspaper journalists until they could make their mark as writers or politicians. In contrast, the Anglo-American ideal was the outgoing aggressive news hunter unbound by political allegiances (Ko. cher 1986).
These differences have been explained by the longer periods of censorship in Continental Europe, which also produced a conception of ‘state-professions’ as regulated by the authorities, different from the Anglo-American system. By contrast to the US journalist the German redakteur demonstrated independence by giving personal and informed opinions which could deviate from more ofﬁcially accepted views.
Jean Chalaby (1996) focuses more on cultural factors like the sharper hierarchy of literary genres in France as compared to Britain, fostering a literary and enigmatic journalism directed toward an elite public as the interpretive community. This tradition continued for decades after censorship was abandoned (Esser 1998, Johnson 1999). On the other hand, the introduction of an authoritarian regime in democratic Estonia 1933–40 did not prevent the breakthrough of more modern and US-inspired journalistic methods (Harro 2000). In Scandinavia the party press subsided gradually somewhere in the 1970s and 1980s. But even before journalistic objectivity was given priority over alternative journalistic values, other elements of the news paradigm were adopted. Nonseid and Høyer (1998) found in a content analysis of four Oslo newspapers 1908–30 only some traces of evidence for Donald Shaw’s (1967) thesis that news agencies inﬂuenced journalism more generally. They studied occurrences of ‘the inverted pyramid,’ which became a more common story telling method during the period, both for wired and self-produced stories. But, except for the wired news, a clear majority of news throughout the period was still cast in different and older forms of story presentation. The inﬂuence of news agencies could be traced, but was weak. Alternative cultural and political factors were apparently stronger. The former USSR had different news criteria and different concepts of autonomy in media. The media should ﬁrst of all be concerned with what the public ought to know according to the communist credo. The news should depict the party line as the guideline for correct behavior. The staple news diet contained all kinds of stories about economic and social progress within socialist countries. Soviet news was not sensational and rarely reported accidents of any kind. TASS—the news bureau—provided between a third and a half of the contents of published Soviet news. In spite of this, events were not necessarily deﬁned by the 24-hour news cycle. The timing of publication was mostly bound to political routines and necessities. As a reﬂection of this conception of what is news Halliki Harro (2000) demonstrates in a recent content analysis of Estonian newspapers 1920–99 that the ‘inverted pyramid’ hardly existed during the Soviet period.
These international examples demonstrate a variety that denies the simple connections between technological and cultural innovations claimed by technological determinists. Even if there may be some links between media technology and the journalism, the connection is certainly indirect and not synchronous. Media technology seems to have diffused much faster and more widely than innovations in journalism, which is ‘part of, and responding to, a deeper cultural movement’ (Schudson 1991, pp. 175–189).
4. News In Electronic Media
Radio news started gradually in the 1920s, ﬁrst by some amateur ham operators reading directly from newspapers to an unknown public. Music, and to a lesser extent lectures and humor, were the great attractions of the new medium, not news. Until the mid-1930s few journalists were assigned to radio news. Only in 1934 did news become an independent department in the British BBC (Schlesinger 1978). Typically, at the beginning, news stories consisted of short bulletins of wired news from major news agencies.
From the outset the press tried hard to repress, and later to control, radio news. The press in Europe most often controlled the main news agencies from where broadcasting corporations got most of their news. In return for access to the wired news the press in the 1920s and early 1930s demanded that broadcasters limit transmission to one news program at around 7.00 p.m., after listeners had got their evening newspapers.
Scarcity of frequencies regulated by the state, as a common good, made public service broadcasting more vulnerable to government control compared to the press. Authorities were determined to avoid controversial topics in radio. Political parties, trade unions, and special interest organizations were thus not welcome as topics or actors in the news. This made radio news rather unrealistic and broadcasters became the voice of some unidentiﬁed official establishment. World War II broke most of these restrictions.
Backgrounds and interpretations were needed to make sense of what happened and to bolster national morale. Day-round bulletins, mixed with reportage and interviews, now became the rule. Radio reporters became identiﬁable persons, sometimes celebrities, as they reported directly from the war theaters. Instrumental in this process was also the tape-recorder, which came into use in 1939.
Television news started out as a copy of the cinema newsreel, with presenters heard but not seen. But the audience wanted to see the faces of announcers, who eventually developed into the role of the anchorperson and moderator. The anchorperson connected the steadily differentiating parts of a televised news story: a short announcement amounting to ‘headlines,’ a lead-type message followed by interviews, reports from eyewitnesses or reporters on location, and expert comments back in the studio to wind up the story. A study of 17 newscasts from eight countries identiﬁed different styles of anchorpersons in Western Europe: the ‘Germanic’ newsreader who brieﬂy introduces the topic and leaves the substance of information to ﬁeld reporters, as contrasted to the ‘Romance’ moderators who provide lengthy transitions between stories and subjective comments in the style of an editorial writer (Heinderyckx 1993).
The Internet promises a lower threshold of access to the distribution of news and views for the regular public in the industrialized world. But to be effective as a news channel it seems that the Internet so far must rely on existing networks of people with special interests. The news sites serve as points of convergence both for a like-minded public internationally and for all sorts of changing information and images within speciﬁc topic areas. Within ﬁnance and some scientiﬁc disciplines, the Internet already serves as a major publishing channel or as a marketplace for news. But for the moment it lacks the ability to reach the broader audience during a regular news cycle. For the Internet to become a general news channel, its use must expand considerably above its present level of penetration.
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