Chapter 4 - What distinguishes the news media and why it matters
The evolution and role of the “news media“
The “news media” has existed as a distinct commercial entity for only a relatively short period in historical terms. Its evolution is inextricably tied to the development of the commercial printing press in the 17th and 18th centuries. As printing technologies advanced, becoming both faster and cheaper, it became possible to disseminate information to mass markets.
In their seminal book on journalism, American media theorists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel describe how the earliest newspapers in America and Britain grew out of the conversations in coffee houses and pubs and contained a mixture of factual information, such as the shipping news, political argument and gossip.82
However the germ of modern journalism was also evident among the very earliest print periodicals to be published in Europe in the 1600s and was reflected in their explicit aim to search out, and publicise, the truth about public affairs:83
[U]nlike the proclamations and town criers who provided the information those in power wanted distributed, these new periodicals aspired to tell people what the government actually did. Though government often clamped down on these early printers, as it would so often in the world, they established investigative reporting as one of the earliest principles that would set journalism apart from other means of communication with the public.
British media historian James Curran describes how, in the early 1700s, England’s political elite responded to the nascent power of the emerging political press by imposing taxes and legal controls, such as a ban on the reporting of Parliament and the introduction of a law of seditious libel making it a criminal offence to criticise Parliament.84
Political administrations and their oppositions also sought to cultivate newspaper proprietors, winning their political allegiance through the use of inducements such as subsidies, exclusive access to information and official advertising.85
However by the late 1700s and early 1800s segments of the commercial press began to carve out some independence from the political elite. A turning point for the English press occurred when newspapers campaigned on behalf of a politician imprisoned in 1763 for writing articles critical of the government. Curran suggests the press’s success in mobilising public opinion against England’s draconian libel laws and the general prohibition on reporting Parliament represented the first demonstration of the “subversive potential of the commercial press.”86
This early flexing of muscle by newspaper proprietors was reinforced by the increasing profitability of their trade as a result of a dramatic growth in advertising revenues during the early to mid-1800s:87
Increased advertising largely financed the development of independent news-gathering resources that rendered newspapers less dependent upon official information. It also encouraged a more independent attitude among proprietors by making it more lucrative to maximize advertising through increasing circulation than to appeal to government and opposition for political subsidies.
In America the newspaper which pioneered this new economic model was the New York Sun which was launched in 1833. The paper targeted mass audiences with a populist mix of crime and human interest stories and sold for a single penny. The success of the Sun’s commercial model depended on building large circulation by pricing the newspaper as an everyday commodity and substituting the foregone circulation revenue with money from advertisers who, in turn, gained access to a mass market through the pages of the newspaper.
For commercial news organisations this basic model was to provide both the economic engine that would sustain newsrooms and the basic editorial recipe that would attract large audiences for the next 170 years.
Curran argues that throughout the late 18th and early 19th century the power and political influence of newspaper proprietors grew in proportion to their papers’ circulations. This increased political weight was in turn reflected in a growing number of legal privileges awarded to the press.88
In 1843 the press’s lengthy and often bitter campaign to reform England’s criminal libel laws resulted in the passage of Lord Campbell’s Libel Act. For the first time “truth” became a legitimate defence against criminal libel charges when a statement dealt with a matter of “public interest”. Up until that point English common law had held the reverse of this – the truthfulness of a statement criticising the government or politicians was seen to exacerbate the libel because it was likely to be more damaging.89
Throughout the 20th century Curran suggests that while parliamentary politics in Britain remained a contest between two opposing class-based ideologies, the press, with its increasing economic and social power, gravitated towards the “anti-ideological” stance of the professions:90
It stressed knowledge, expertise and rationality – central to the credentials and public legitimation of the professions – in opposition to prejudice and unthinking partisanship. It also took pride in the supposed disinterest of professional people who were able to serve the public interest, because they were independent of both business and labour.
Television and radio also had a profound impact on public affairs reporting and the concept of professional standards. Unlike the newspaper industry, which was dominated by private enterprise, broadcasters relied on the use of radio spectrum, a public resource that was controlled by the state under various licensing regimes. Initially in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, the state had a monopoly on both television and radio broadcasting and when both were incrementally opened to commercial competitors the state was able to attach minimum legal requirements to those utilising this powerful new medium. Among these was a requirement for balance and fairness – or political neutrality – in the coverage of news and current affairs.
That said, while newspapers and commercial broadcasters increasingly adopted professional standards with respect to their news reportage, many remained overtly politically and or ideologically aligned. Often such allegiances became integral to a publisher’s or broadcaster’s “brand position” and were carefully calculated to appeal to targeted segments of the population.91
The role of the media in a modern democracy
From this very truncated and simplified historical overview it is clear that the entity we know today as the “news media” evolved haltingly over a period of several centuries, enabled by technology, but subject to a range of often conflicting social, political and economic forces.
The printing press provided a means of amplifying and concentrating individual speech in a way that was accessible to ordinary citizens for the first time in human history. Mass circulation newspapers, and their broadcast media equivalents, gave rise to a new political force, public opinion, which was to have a profound effect on how governments behaved and democratic institutions evolved over the next 170 years.
However, it was only as newspaper proprietors began to achieve a measure of real independence from the political system, and were freed from the legal constraints on free speech, that the power of the press began to be realised.
The fundamental importance of a free press was famously entrenched in the American Constitution which was ratified in 1781. The Constitution’s often quoted First Amendment states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
An independent and free press, unfettered by political interference, was seen to be a necessary embodiment of an individual’s right to free expression and an essential condition for democracy. Put simply, unless citizens were able to freely access and exchange information and opinions about what was happening in society, they were not able to self-govern. All other rights and freedoms were conditional on an individual’s right to speak and be heard without fear of reprisal.
As we have discussed, the idea that the press would act as a watchdog and check on political power was embedded in the philosophy of some of the earliest pamphleteers and periodical writers.
Throughout the course of the 20th century the idea that the press had an important role to play in the democratic process advanced and became a central plank in the defence of an independent and free press.
The expectation that even the commercial press was somehow accountable to the public for fulfilling this quasi-constitutional function was very clearly articulated in the 1949 United Kingdom Report of the Royal Commission on the Press:92
The press may be judged, first, as the chief agency for instructing the public on the main issues of the day. The importance of this function needs no emphasis.
The democratic form of society demands of its members an active and intelligent participation in the affairs of the community, whether local or national. It assumes that they are sufficiently well informed about the issues of the day to be able to form the broad judgments required by an election, and to maintain between elections the vigilance necessary in those whose governors are their servants not their masters.
More and more it demands also an alert and informed participation not only in purely political processes but also in the efforts of the community to adjust its social and economic life to increasingly complex circumstances.
Democratic society, therefore, needs a clear and truthful account of events, of their background and their causes; a forum for discussion and informed criticism; and a means whereby individuals and groups can express a point of view or advocate a cause.
This passage captures the classic theory of the function of “the press” in a liberal democracy, which is to:
- act as independent watchdog on the exercise of state and private power;
- represent the public;
- disseminate information to the public; and
- provide a forum for public debate.
These public interest functions assigned to the news media have provided the justification for many of the special statutory and common law privileges and exemptions granted to the press in modern democracies such as our own. For example, the news media’s role as representative of the public, disseminator of information and independent watchdog on the exercise of power all underpin journalists’ special status in Parliament and the courts. Similarly, exemptions from laws such as the Privacy Act 1993 and specific media defences against defamation actions are both designed to ensure the news media is not unjustifiably constrained in its news reporting activities.
News gathering as a “public trust”
Press power, standards and accountability
The fact that the news media is engaged in an activity which serves both a commercial and a public interest was captured succinctly by Henry Steed, a former editor of The Times, when he stated in 1938 that the “underlying principle that governs, or should govern, the Press is that the gathering and selling of news and views is essentially a public trust.”93
Steed’s assertion that the core business of news media companies involves some element of “public trust” goes to the heart of why the news media have traditionally been treated as a special class of publisher, accountable to explicit professional codes and standards.
These standards, and the values they are intended to protect, bear closer inspection because they make explicit the essence of journalistic practice – and what sets it apart from other forms of communication.
To be useful, news must be reliable. Truthfulness - or at least a commitment to getting the facts right - lies at the heart of journalism, as Kovach and Rosenstiel explain:94
The desire that information be truthful is elemental. Since news is the material that people use to learn and think about the world beyond themselves, the most important quality is that it be usable and reliable…
Truthfulness creates, in effect, the sense of security that grows from awareness and is at the essence of news.
Kovach and Rosenstiel note that “the promise of being truthful and accurate” was central to the marketing claims of some of the earliest newspapers in America and Europe. Even the early tabloids, such as Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, sought to assure readers of the accuracy of their reporting. For example in 1913 Pulitzer set up a Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play, overseen by its own press ombudsman, to reinforce his claims of reliability.
In the contemporary context the need for truthfulness and accuracy is reflected in what Kovach and Rosensteil describe as journalism’s “culture of verification” which translates into such basic practices as fact checking and sourcing of claims.
Alongside truthfulness and accuracy, there is also an expectation that the news media will try to maintain an objective stance and apply standards of balance and fairness with respect to its news gathering and reporting. Again, such requirements underpin the idea of “reliability” and translate into basic requirements that important facts or countervailing opinions will not be deliberately omitted; that those likely to be damaged by a claim have the opportunity to reply; and that the journalist will not intentionally mislead or misrepresent.
Critically, too, the news media must strive to be transparent in how they report the news so that the public is able to make its own assessment of where the truth might lie when matters are unclear: opinion, rumour and conjecture must be distinguished from fact; vested interests and agendas made explicit; sufficient context provided so as to give meaning to events.
Although not always well publicised, we see these broad principles reflected with remarkable consistency in the professional codes of news media organisations all over the world. Here in New Zealand for example both the Press Council and the Broadcasting Standards Authority have developed principles and standards covering these fundamental issues of journalistic practice.
The journalists’ code of ethics drawn up by the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, (to which journalists belong), summarises these core values which are supposed to underpin journalistic practice:95
Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are overriding principles for all journalists. In pursuance of these principles, journalists commit themselves to ethical and professional standards. All members of the Union engaged in gathering, transmitting, disseminating and commenting on news and information shall…report and interpret the news with scrupulous honesty by striving to disclose all essential facts and by not suppressing relevant available facts or distorting by wrong or improper emphasis.
Finally, those who purport to be authoritative and reliable sources of news and information can exert tremendous power in society. Reputations, businesses and elections can be made or lost as a result of sustained media pressure. While it is in society’s interest that the press be free to carry out its democratic functions, it is also essential that there be some way of “guarding the guardians” to ensure the power of the press is exercised responsibly and abuses are checked.
One of the key indicators of reliability is a willingness to be upfront when serious mistakes are made. Owning up to, and correcting errors is in this sense a marker of trustworthiness.
Hence there must be a mechanism by which the news media is made accountable to the public for serious breaches of journalistic standards and the “public trust” vested in them.
In Britain, for example, many mass circulation tabloid newspapers continue to explicitly endorse political parties and in almost all countries in the world commercial television networks have positioned themselves to appeal to different market segments.