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All the News That's Fit to Miss:
Reviewed by Paul Garbutt
The Missing News summarizes the work of News Watch Canada
(formerly Project Censored Canada) in researching and analyzing
news content and media bias.
The authors have incorporated interviews with Canadian journalists
about how they work and the influences that determine what news
gets covered in articles and broadcasts. NewsWatch Canada illustrates
its points with information gathered from in-depth surveys of news
content in Canadian media from 1993 through 1995.
Also given attention is the impact of takeovers and consolidation
which swept the Canadian news industry in the 1990s.
The picture that emerges is of a news industry influenced much
more by economics and bureaucratic routine than by any overt manipulation,
although outright manipulation are not unknown.
More than 80% of surveyed journalists cited too narrow a range
of sources as a factor in the omission or underreporting of issues
in the news. An equally large majority also said budget cuts and
a lack of newsroom resources had played a significant role in narrowing
of the scope of news.
News content was scrutinized for bias or slant, using such criteria
as which sources were quoted first or most often in articles, seen
to have an impact on the credibility conferred on different sides
of an issue.
84% of journalists surveyed said a lack of resources, including
time, money and news space "occasionally" or "often"
lead to the omission of significant news. Downsizing of news reporting
staffs means there are too few bodies to cover the basics, let alone
stories that stray outside the daily grind of party politics, crime
and sports. One result is a tendency for non-routine or complex
stories to get ignored or covered inadequately.
Journalists habitually rely on "authoritative" institutional
sources, such as corporate PR people, senior officials, the courts,
etc. It's more convenient. It's easily digestible, reliable and
without surprises. Reporters also reported feeling pressure to write
and research stories within certain constraints. The fear of alienating
sources, owners or advertisers can create a powerful "internal"
self censoring mechanism which can potentially influence which issues
get covered and how such issues are framed.
A picture emerges of media outlets dependent on other new producing
bureaucracies, and unable or unwilling to allocate resources to
independent investigative reporting.
Media outlets need a secure supply of usable news as well as a
means of processing it efficiently. In addition to supply and production,
there are constraints on consumption of news. This is especially
true in the case of television news, where there is a need for stories
with compelling visuals, and those which can be easily encapsulated
to fit the timelines of the medium. This has the effect of narrowing
the range of topics that are covered. In order to be economically
viable, news must appeal to the reader/viewers' tastes, values and
needs, while avoiding offence. This appeal, also known as 'news
value", is seen to be directly tied to the profitability and
ultimately, the survival of a news outlet. If a story or issue is
seen to lack news value, coverage in the media can be expected to
be minimal, if it appears at all.
Observable trends in newspaper and TV coverage show an increasing
emphasis on "junk food" news about pop culture and entertainment
personalities, and more space is allotted to "feature sections",
concerned with such "issues" as automobiles and fashion,
which further blur the line between information and advertising.
Economic and organizational pressures are cited in the phenomenon of "follow the leader" or "pack journalism" (O.J. Simpson, Diana etc.). Stories that challenge conventional wisdom and are not pursed by other media are likely to be buried. Stories dealing with long term trends are less likely to be covered for fear that the audience may be bored or upset by them.
Newsmongers: How the media distort political news (Review)