Press Coverage of the News

The Myth of Objectivity

Newspaper reporters and television commentators repeatedly profess their belief in objectivity. Their mission, they assert over and over, is to report the news as it happens--not as anyone wants it to happen, but as it actually occurs. "The unvarnished truth." "Tell it like it is." These are the watch words of professional journalism. Frank Stanton, a former president of CBS, told a congressional committee "that what the media do is to hold a mirror up to society and try to report it as faithfully as possible."

According to this interpretation, which has been called the mirror metaphor, the media do not fabricate or distort the news; they merely report events, whether beautiful or ugly, as they happen. Objectivity requires that journalists adhere to the principles of independence, fairness, balance, honesty, and courage. They must maintain this stance in the face of growing concentration in the ownership and control of mass communications and brave the wrath of irate politicians or the general public who do not like what they are hearing or reading.

That the press adheres to the standards of objectivity, truth, and independence seems at first sight self-evident. Most newspapers are not openly partisan. They save their opinions for the editorial page, which is clearly marked as such.

To be sure, news organizations are from time to time the objects of charges that they emphasize violence, are too liberal, or criticize more than they praise. In fact, most public leaders cross swords with the press more than once in their careers. Former President Nixon devoted endless hours to plotting against journalists he believed were his enemies. His predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, also frequently tangled with members of the press. More recently, Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, claims the media intend to destroy the Republican "revolution" and undermine its "Contract With America." Yet these feuds only further convince reporters that they are merely doing their job of telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may.

Reporters and ordinary citizens alike cling tightly to the belief in objectivity because it reassures them that nothing is being held back; nothing is slanted. Since an abundance of objective information permits people to be responsible and active citizens, democracy is protected.

Still, one wonders how far the argument can be pushed. Writing in 1922, Walter Lippmann, one of America's most respected journalists, said that "news and truth are not the same thing and must be clearly distinguished." He continued, "The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other and make a picture of reality...."

Lippmann's point is that there is an enormous difference between being objective--that is, fair and unbiased--and being informative--that is, telling people everything they need to know in order to act responsibly.

A key question is how typical this kind of reporting is. If the knowledge can easily be obtained elsewhere, it is possible to conclude with the pluralists that citizens have the tools to govern themselves more or less democratically. If, on the other hand, there are serious shortcomings, we might agree with the power elite camp that the people, because they have insufficient meaningful information, wield less power than they could and should.

How the Press Covers and Presents the News

A little thought about the mirror metaphor quickly leads to the conclusion that it cannot be totally correct. News coverage, whether by television, radio, magazines, or newspapers, must inevitably be selective, selective not simply in which stories it reports but in how it presents them as well. Selectivity is essential to journalism. Can the evening news, a 30-minute program, give an account of everything that has transpired during the day? Obviously not. Instead, reporters, camera operators, writers, editors, and directors must act as gatekeepers, and the ordinary viewer does not know what is being let in and kept out.

Equally important, the men and women who present the news are human beings who, in spite of their good intentions, occasionally succumb to anger, jealousy, anxiety, impatience, ambition, and other emotions that cloud their objectivity. They belong to large, complex organizations that have their own diverse, often conflicting, goals and needs. A correspondent in Washington may be interested in getting all the "facts" behind a story, but the publisher in Denver who has to pay the bills may want something less than the total picture. Sooner or later compromises have to be made.

Presenting the news to the public is not merely a matter of "telling it like it is." It is very much a human activity. Reporters do not willfully distort their stories, but the way they describe issues and events nevertheless affects the public's understanding of them.

Time and Space Constraints.

As mentioned above, the August 1, 1989, edition of the News Journal, a paper similar to the ones read by millions of Americans, contained more than 30 national and international news items. The number seems large until one realizes that the average length per item was only 200 words. The longest article (the one about Higgins) contained no more than 1,000 words, less than an average college term paper, and most reports consisted of a single, one-sentence paragraph. Advertisements, in fact, took up about a third of the first section. (Mattress ads, for instance, covered more space than the lead story.)

Brevity is an even more serious problem for television and radio news, which have been described as snapshot-and-headline services. After subtracting time for commercials, network evening news programs have only 20 minutes or so to cover the day's events. If they mention 15 subjects, a not uncommon number, they have less than two minutes for each. Most stories, though, are reported in less than 45 seconds.

Far from being a mirror that reflects government and politics back to the citizenry, then, news organizations are searchlights that illuminate some objects while leaving others in the dark. What gets exposed?

Before taking up that matter an important distinction must be drawn between the popular press and the activist press, which differ greatly in the detail and sophistication of their news coverage. This analysis mainly concerns the popular press, the sources like the News Journal used by the average person. Detailed accounts of national and international affairs are available in papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post or on public television programs aimed at politically active and influential audiences.

The Official Point of View.

A network executive once said, "The news you print is actually the news you cover...the question is how far do you fling the net." From an organizational point of view, it is most efficient and economical to cast the net only in the places where something is likely to be caught: legislatures, government offices, foreign capitals, and scheduled press briefings--places where authoritative speakers will be doing the talking. Consequently, broadcasters and journalists tend to congregate in capitals and large cities from where they can always fan out if the need arises.

Besides, the norm of objectivity places heavy emphasis on the official point of view or utterances and deeds of government officials and experts. If, say, a small-town minister or teacher expresses an opinion about the Middle East, it is usually considered just that, an opinion. Certainly no one would think of publishing it. But if exactly the same thought is expressed by a senator or a cabinet secretary, the press is apt to consider it a pronouncement worthy of presentation on the six o'clock news.

W. Lance Bennett, who has carefully studied the way news is conveyed to the public, claims that the media avoid "wide-ranging coverage of diverse viewpoints and experiences in favor of extensive coverage of official positions and mainstream perspectives." He cites one study that shows that government officials (domestic and foreign) are the source of three-quarters of all reports in two of America's leading newspapers, the Washington Post and the New York Times. The study concluded that less than 1 percent of all news stories originated from the reporters' own investigations, while more than 90 percent relayed "calculated messages" of people with a vested interest in a particular point of view. A huge number were based on situations in which the "newsmakers [had] either complete or substantial control." Notice that in the article about the hostages quoted earlier, the only source cited is an Israeli official.

Another survey of stories on the front pages of both popular and activist newspapers discovered that nearly one out of three sources of the news items were "affiliated" with the national government; another 14 percent represented state and local governments, while private citizens accounted for only 4 percent of the total. These results led the investigators to conclude that "front-page news stories in both the national and local press and the wire services rely heavily on government sources who are primarily men in executive positions....Most reporting relies on routine channels, such as press conferences and press releases." The reader might want to check this assertion by looking for the sources of information presented in stories in a recent newspaper or television newscast. Look not at what the item is about or who wrote it but who provided the reporter with the information.

Sources of News Stories
Source National Local Wire Total
U. S. government 32% 16% 36% 31%
State/Local government 12 32 11 14
Foreign government 12 - 13 10
Institution 25 36 19 24
Private citizen 4 6 4 4
Other 16 10 18 16

The war in Vietnam dramatically demonstrates how the official point of view prevails in the coverage of major issues. In the beginning, doubts about American involvement in Vietnam came mainly from a handful of individuals, most of whom were private citizens. That the strife in Vietnam was extremely complex, that America's interests in its outcome were never entirely clear, that the enemy might have greater strength and resolve than anyone imagined, that the United States might be blundering into a quagmire from which there would be no easy escape, and that alternative policies existed were hardly ever discussed in the evening news or the daily newspapers prior to 1964. Todd Gitlin, The Whole World Is Watching (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1980). Instead, as an NBC correspondent says of the first years of the war, "To the extent that we in the media paid any attention at all to that small, dirty war...we almost wholly reported the position of the government."1 Daniel Hallin, who cataloged network broadcasts from 1965 to 1973, summarized this reliance, saying that the media relied heavily on official information and carefully avoided judging U.S. policies and statements. Michael Parenti, a severe critic of the media, puts the point more bluntly: "...during the early years of the conflict the press reported the war largely the way the U.S. government wanted it reported, raising no serious objections about U.S. intervention."

The war eventually became the object of critical attention, but only after the United States was deeply committed. By then the debate on its merits was too late to prevent American involvement. Skeptics like Hallin and Parenti and others feel that by stressing the government's stand and not airing other ideas, the media greatly delayed public discussion that might have encouraged the Kennedy or Johnson administrations to reassess their policies. If anyone doubts this conclusion, an interesting project would be to compare newspaper coverage of the Vietnam War in selected papers in the years, say, 1963, 1965, and 1968.

Official interpretations of issues and policies appear in print and on the air so much not only because the news media find it convenient to cover them. Politicians, like members of any large organization, skillfully cultivate the press and maintain a well-oiled public relations apparatus. The Defense Department, perhaps the most spectacular example, spends millions of dollars each year disseminating information about its programs and activities. It holds frequent briefings, supplies films and photographs, issues background reports, conducts tours of military bases, and, when it suits its purposes, even leaks secret documents. All this material serves the Pentagon's interests and at the same time simplifies the media's work. Furthermore, because it emanates from a supposedly authoritative source and because reporters often do not have expertise in these areas, the information is passed on to the public as the unvarnished truth.

No one should take any of these remarks to mean that the government controls the press. Politicians sometimes wish they could tell reporters what to write and have on occasion tried to do so. On the whole, however, freedom of the press is well protected by law and tradition. Compared with their counterparts in other democracies, American journalists have remarkable latitude. The New York Times, in one famous case, published the "Pentagon Papers," a classified analysis of the origins of the Vietnam War, despite intense pressure from the White House and Defense Department, which took the matter to the Supreme Court. In what is now considered a landmark decision, the Court upheld the Times' right to publish the material. Probably few other democracies would be as lenient.

Moreover, there is no conspiracy of silence in this country; the media are not passive observers. They continually doubt, criticize, and antagonize public officials. Yet the fact remains that for a host of reasons the media depend heavily on official interpretations of events. As Bennett explains: "...most news stories reserve for official sources the first, the last, and many words in between. Much of the daily news is devoted to official actions and reactions." Stated another way, the news that most Americans consume does not mirror the world as it really is but as people in positions of power and leadership want them to see it.


News stories tend to emphasize individuals' trials and tribulations, the "human angle." Personalization, the emphasis on the personal aspects of news stories, is especially prevalent in the coverage of political battles where winners and losers are easily identified. Early in 1985 the House of Representatives approved funding for additional MX missiles, a very controversial and expensive weapons system. President Ronald Reagan lobbied hard for the program, but many Democrats, especially Thomas ("Tip") O'Neill, then speaker of the House, vigorously opposed it. Here are the headlines and lead paragraphs from three different newspapers:

MX: REAGAN 219, O'NEILL 213 2

The House delivered a slender, hard-fought victory to President Reagan on Tuesday voting 219-213 to approve spending $1.5 billion for 21 more MX missiles.The vote was a major reversal for Democratic Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill and other House leaders who had worked hard to defeat the MX. 3

The House of Representatives gave President Reagan a narrow but significant triumph tonight when it voted 219 to 213 to release $1.5 billion earmarked for the purchase of 21 additional MX missiles.4

Reagan's "victory," not the missiles' strategic merits, is the center of attention and encourages the reader to regard that as the most important aspect of the story.

The press thus explains issues not on their own terms but as they affect various individuals; it dissects events not for their ideological content but for their personal drama; the question most often addressed is not "what are the merits of this policy" but, "who will it benefit and who will it harm;" whether something is newsworthy or not is gauged not by its economic or social ramifications but by how much interpersonal conflict it arouses. David Paletz and Robert Entman succinctly capture the essence of personalized news: "Prime news generally involves prominent, powerful people in action, or more desirable from the media's point of view, in conflict.

Drama and Action

A journalist can report a political incident from many angles. It is possible, for example, to focus on its causes, its connections to other events, its immediate ramifications, or its historical meaning. But the news media, and television in particular, seem to take a different perspective: "...the exciting and controversial, the 'visual' and above all, the quick will survive the editorial process; the complex, difficult and abstract will wind up on the cutting room floor." Or, as a British critic notes, "Professional television pressures work constantly toward portraying action and not thought, personalities and not issues, what is visually happening and not the boring explanations of why." Patrick Buchanan, former President Reagan's director of communications, stated the proposition differently: "The principal press bias is not a liberal bias. It's a bias for a good fight. The press loves to see a fight start, and it hates to see it end."

The stress on drama, conflict, and violence is easily seen in the lead story of television news shows or the front page of the local daily. After all, what appears first--airplane crashes, bombings, earthquakes, murders, typhoons, and armed conflict or substantive public policy controversies?

Even more significant, the emphasis on the sound and fury of politics becomes part of how even routine situations are reported. Consider CBS news coverage of a congressional hearing during which the secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, asked for no further cuts in military appropriations. Instead of describing the Secretary's position or the counterarguments it raised, CBS showed a heated exchange of insults between Senator Donald Riegle and Mr. Weinberger. Senator Riegle's denunciation of the secretary's judgment as "dangerous to the country" drew the retort, "You have accomplished your principal purpose, to launch a demagogic attack on me in time for the afternoon and evening editions." The content and form of CBS's presentation implied that images of two angry men were more newsworthy than an analysis of what they were arguing about in the first place.

Another common tendency is to report violence without explaining the underlying motivations or grievances. The coverage of Higgins's hanging by the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, as we have seen, did not delve into the factors that ultimately led to his being held hostage. It may be true that the killers are no more than a band of insane terrorists, but it is still important to know what conditions produce and sustain such groups.

Domestic confrontations between protesters and authorities are invariably handled the same way. By dwelling on frenzied crowds battling police with rocks and bottles, the news satisfies its craving for sound and fury but obscures the issues that sparked the confrontation. A good example is the way television presented student antiwar protests during the late 1960s and early 1970s. According to Edward J. Epstein, " type of campus story was routinely covered: the confrontation between police and students...."

Many of the factors that determine how the media cover news in general also govern their approach to political campaigns and elections.

1 Quoted in Edward J. Epstein, Beyond Fact and Fiction (New York: Vintage, 1975) p. 215. Go back

2 USA Today, March 27, 1985 Go back

3 Wilmington News Journal, March 27, 1985 Go back

4 New York Times, March 7, 1985 Go back

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