News and News Sources: A Critical Introduction

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Paul Manning

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    Dedication

    For Winnie

    Preface

    The main aim of this book is as a contribution to the development of a framework for analysing the relationship between news sources and news media in contemporary liberal democratic, capitalist societies. A decade ago the question of news source activity was given scant attention by researchers. Now the literature is growing and we know more about the experiences of environmental activists, trade unions, penal reform groups, and other campaigning organisations in trying to develop news media strategies. There is a paradox in our experience of the news media: we suspect that the powerful have a very considerable ability to set agendas and control the supply of information to the public domain and yet, on a regular basis, we find news stories emerging which serve to highlight the inability of corporate organisations and governments to prevent information damaging to their interests from seeping out. As the range and variety of news media outlets expands in a multi-channel, ‘media-saturated’ world, there appears to be greater diversity and openness in news coverage, yet we as a public grow ever more suspicious of the ways in which news may be spun and controlled by the powerful.

    This book suggests that we must look, in part, to the interaction between particular news sources and the organisations engaged in the various processes of news commodification, for an understanding of the nature of these paradoxes. In other words, both the model of a monolithic power structure controlling all news media from the centre, and the most naïve versions of pluralistic openness in news communication are wide of the mark. The institutional arrangements of corporate capitalism, government and the state allocate many of the best cards but not all the cards to the powerful, in the struggle around news agendas. The less powerful and the politically marginal do get a look in, but how and to what extent are empirical questions. This book tries to offer a framework for thinking through and exploring these issues. It is a framework which rests upon certain theoretical assumptions. Most important, it is assumed that interaction between news sources, journalists and news organisations involves a struggle to control information flows. Those involved may resort to coercion, implicit bargaining or even formal negotiation. Resources, both material and symbolic, are deployed in an effort to shape or control the information flows sustaining news production. Within the sociology of journalism, these sorts of themes have been traditionally approached through a variety of interactionist, ethnomethodological or organisational perspectives. However, if by political economy we mean the study of the ways in which material and symbolic resources promote or constrain action and are deployed to secure interests or advantage, then the study of the engagements between news sources, journalists and news organisations is an appropriate topic for a political economy. Such an approach is helpful, I think, because it reminds us that the battle to control information flows is a struggle around resources (material and symbolic) and, secondly, because it reminds us that all these micro-engagements occur in the context of the larger political–economic environment – market pressures, proprietorial interests, the formal and informal regulative capacities of government, and so on.

    The first aim of this book, then, is to explore the nature of news source–news organisation interaction within a framework which could be described as political–economic. In doing this, the book reviews a wide range of evidence, including some important and well-known studies, but it tries to offer more than merely an introductory review. While some of the evidence is drawn from established work, other evidence is drawn from original research, or other original sources. The theoretical frameworks deployed, particularly in Chapters 6 and 7, draw upon several influences but try to offer a distinctive approach for theorising the activity of news sources.

    A second aim of the book is to provide an accessible guide to the ways in which sources and news organisations interact to produce news, within the constraints imposed by markets, ownership structures and political institutions. Hopefully, students will find the book useful as a guide to the sociology of news sources, even if some of the material contained within strays from the familiar paths. I have tried to make the style and use of terminology as accessible as possible.

    Chapter 1 serves as an introduction but does so by emphasising the importance of the question of news sources for the health of the public arenas that sustain the discussion and debate vital to democracy. Chapter 2 reviews the range of theoretical approaches available for analysing the relationship between news sources and news media. Chapters 35 deal with aspects of the political economic environment within which news is produced and news sources seek to operate. Chapter 3 explores the changing nature of news journalism and the organisation of the news room; Chapter 4 considers the constraints of markets, advertising, proprietorial power and the structures of capital, and Chapter 5 deals with the formal and informal controls over information flows at the disposal of governments and state. In each case, I have tried to draw examples and evidence from beyond the United Kingdom, though given the partisan nature of the English press and the preoccupation with spin which has characterised recent British governments, it is impossible not to dwell at some length upon the experience of the United Kingdom. Chapters 6 and 7 consider the position of news sources seeking to secure access to the news media. The central question concerns the extent to which politically marginal groups can find ways of countering the power and advantages associated with the material and symbolic resources at the disposal of corporations and state institutions, in the struggle to control or influence information flows. Chapter 8 returns to more familiar terrain by reviewing the available evidence concerning audiences for political communication. Does all the effort invested in news media work by the powerful or politically marginal signify among the public? Evidence from nearly five decades of audience research is hardly conclusive but it is now possible to describe the nature of public responses to political communication and news media work with some degree of confidence. There are signs that a sceptical public is growing ever more disillusioned with spin and political public relations. There is certainly evidence to suggest that political audiences are prepared to think critically and sceptically about the messages they receive providing they can draw upon alternative sources of evidence or information. It would be ironic if the political spin industry faced a terminal legitimation crisis produced by the very slickness of its own practices but such an outcome would not be a cause for regret among those who would welcome a politics prepared to acknowledge real social divisions and some awkward choices, rather than pay so much attention to presentation.

    Acknowledgements

    Many people have helped in various ways in the writing of this book. My colleagues in the Sociology Department at De Montfort University have provided encouragement in generous measure. Julia Hall at Sage has been equally patient and supportive. Although not in any way responsible for the ideas set out in this book, I should thank Professor Peter Golding for his invaluable guidance while I served my academic apprenticeship and for playing no small a part in securing the opportunity for this book to be written. De Montfort University granted study leave for one semester which allowed a start to be made. I am also grateful to the editors of Media Culture Society (Sage) and Ashgate Publications for permission to draw upon some evidence which has appeared in earlier publications. As always, my deepest thanks go to my family, Winnie, Michael, Peter and Dan, together with Barbara Manning, for their cheerful love and support.

    Abbreviations

    AFL-CIOAmerican Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organisations
    AFPAgence France-Presse
    APAssociated Press
    AEUAmalgamated Engineering Union
    AEEUAmalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union
    BBCBritish Broadcasting Corporation
    BECTUBroadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union
    CGTConfédération Générale du Travail
    CNNCable Network News
    COHSEConfederation of Health Service Employees
    ECEuropean Commission
    GISGovernment Information Service
    GMBGeneral and Municipal Workers Union
    ITCIndependent Television Commission
    NALGONational Association of Local Government Officers
    NASANational Aeronautics and Space Administration
    NHSNational Health Service (Britain)
    NUPENational Union of Public Employees
    TGWUTransport and General Workers Union
    TUCBritish Trade Union Congress
    UPITNUnited Press International Television News
    WTNWorldwide Television News
    WWFNWorld Wide Fund for Nature
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