A political economy of news production

13 02 2008

ResearchBlogging.orgInteresting article in the latest issue of Journalism Practice. Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008 provide evidence for the journalistic reliance on PR and press agency copy. The authors attribute this source reliance to an increased workload, a claim they back up with employment figures, profit margins and pagination patterns at UK national newspapers, interview data and content analysis findings. For what it’s worth, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on their inspiring research article.

Firstly, the article accurately describes the production pressures facing journalists these days and also provides a very plausible account of changing news production practices. For example, in a content analysis of 2207 newspaper stories, the authors found that

30 per cent of published items were wholly dependent on agency copy with a further 19 per cent strongly derivative from agency materials. (p29)

They argue that this

increase in journalistic productivity charted here is an inevitable response to maintaining profitability during a period of steady (and continuing) decline in newspaper readership. (p42)

However, missing in their political economy of PR & PA copy uptake by journalists, is an account of how journalists actually knock PR copy “into shape”. (self-promotion mode: on) In my own research (Van Hout & Jacobs 2008, Van Hout & Macgilchrist (in press)), I examine what business journalists do when they write from sources by combining ethnography and computer-assisted writing process analysis. This allows me to contextualize and reconstruct the writing process step-by-step, showing how journalists, embedded in larger structures of news production, transform various news discourses into a narrative account of a news event. The ‘interpretive creativity’ (Peterson 2003) with which journalists write reproductively highlights their analytical insight and professional routines (self-promotion mode: off).

Secondly, in their introduction, the authors identify four interconnected ‘rumours’ which, taken together, they believe underlie changes in UK news production routines:

  1. journalists have become news processors instead of generators
  2. market demands force smaller workforces to produce more
  3. journalists have become less weary of PR copy
  4. decreased editorial indepence in UK newsrooms

Against this background, the authors set out to “generate detailed empirical evidence to replace speculation and rumour as well as to develop a causal account for these developments” (p28). While I applaud their ambition, I find it striking that they do not refer to recent research on source-media interaction. Indeed, there is an expanding body of linguistic, ethnographic and social research that directly addresses the first two claims. The work of Mark Deuze comes to mind but also Jacobs 1999, Bishop 2001, Kjær & Langer 2003, Pander Maat 2007, Peterson 2001, Reich 2006 to name but a few.

Thirdly, Lewis et al point attention to the fact that

Newspapers make little acknowledgement of this reliance on agency copy even when they publish such materials in more or less verbatim form. (p 30)

Indeed, in news articles, direct intertextual references are usually omitted or given inter alia. This practice is borne out of an attempt to establish authority through (assumed) authorship and exemplifies a journalistic ideology of portraying the news as “having been there” (cf. Zelizer 2007 on the practice of eyewitnessing). I believe that with the rise of desktop journalism this ideology should be reframed as “having read this”, an idea which I aim to develop in further research.

Lastly, the authors are critical of reproductive newsgathering practices because they impoverish “the quality of information in a democratic society” (p43). I beg to differ somewhat. Investigative journalism (the recent SocGen trading scandal notwithstanding) does not depend exclusively on print media. Will democracies be ‘in danger’ when newspapers go out of print? I don’t think so. I think that future forms of pro-am journalism can offer exciting avenues for sound investigative journalism.

Lewis, J., Williams, A., Franklin, B. (2008). FOUR RUMOURS AND AN EXPLANATION. Journalism Practice, 2(1), 27-45. DOI: 10.1080/17512780701768493

References:

  • Bishop, Ronald (2001). News Media, Heal Thyselves: Sourcing Patterns in News Stories about News Media Performance. Journal of Communication Inquiry 25, 22-37.
  • Jacobs, Geert (1999). Preformulating the news. An analysis of the metapragmatics of press releases. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Kjær, Peter and Langer, Roy (2003). The negotiation of business news: A study of journalist-source interaction. Paper presented at the 19th EGOS Conference, Subtheme 14: “Organizing power and authority in a fluid society”. Copenhagen. Conference paper.
  • Pander Maat, Henk (2007). How promotional language in press releases is dealt with by journalists. Genre mixing or genre conflict? Journal of Business Communication 44, 59-95.
  • Peterson, Mark Allen (2001). Getting to the Story: Unwriteable Discourse and Interpretive Practice in American Journalism. Anthropological Quarterly 74, 201-211.
  • Peterson, Mark Allen (2003). Anthropology & Mass Communication. Media and myth in the new millenium. New York: Berghahn Books.
  • Reich, Zvi (2006). The process model of news initiative. Sources lead first, reporters thereafter. Journalism Studies 7, 497-514.
  • Van Hout, Tom and Jacobs, Geert (2008). News production theory and practice: fieldwork notes on power, interaction and agency. Pragmatics 18, 59-84.
  • Van Hout, Tom and Macgilchrist, Flyss (in press). Framing the news: an ethnographic view of financial newswriting.
  • Zelizer, Barbie (2007). On “Having Been There”: “Eyewitnessing” as a Journalistic Key Word. Critical Studies in Media Communication 24, 408 – 428.

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3 responses

27 12 2008
Journalism in discredit: Nick Davies @ KIM « Tom Van Hout

[…] afterwards. My interest was further sparked by the news that Radboud University is replicating the political economy of news production – i.c. content analyses of news sources and corresponding news texts  – that Flat Earth News was […]

22 01 2009
Paul Hucker, Ninja turtles & astro turf PR « Tom Van Hout

[…] news media, that it ignores the emergence of novel, amateur news sources such as Twitter and that the study on which the book was based is not unproblematic. How exactly, was source reliance measured? What […]

20 06 2009
On print and online journalism (again) « Tom Van Hout

[…] makes the comparison between source texts and news texts a difficult exercise. It is the basis of my critique of Lewis et al.’s study of source transparency in British print […]

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