Daddy, Where Does the News Come From?

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
13 March, 2018
Editorial: 184
Fecha de publicación original: 12 octubre, 1999

Abundance kills the appetite

The media, by furnishing society with an essential vision of itself, has become a fundamental part of the political system. If this system is rigid, dictatorial, totalitarian or fundamentalist, the media usually constructs a vision which corresponds to the regime in power. If the system is — to a certain degree– open and representative of the social forces that it is made up of, the media form part of the political game and its influence increases as does society’s need for a vision of itself, thus enabling it to function in a more complex and interconnected world. Until the appearance of the Internet at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s –one of the corollaries of changes being wrought throughout the international community–, the monopoly on the construction and dissemination of this societal vision had been held, almost without exception, and above all from the middle of this century onwards, by the traditional media, and more particularly by the printed press, radio and television.

The communications model that corresponds to this monopoly is based on a specific way of producing information for mass audiences. This determines, to a large extent, the very nature of the production process, the information it generates and the hierarchy that maintains it. The media have access to information as well as the human resources and technical ability for processing, analysing, elaborating, packaging and distributing it. It is a model, therefore, based on a highly hierarchical and vertical process: only the few possess the resources and tools for transmitting information to the many, to mass audiences, who, by definition, have no way of getting at the information they need on their own.

However, the most outstanding feature of the media’s vehicular role is that it covers events that occur (forgive my stating the obvious) beyond its sphere. Journalism is a profession exercised by journalists (and it would be wise to recall here that the terms journalism and journalist are not synonymous, that the first refers to an activity and work environment, while the second designates those that exercise the profession and work within that context), individuals trained to unearth the raw material of those events, namely the information, and then prepare, analyse, process and elaborate it in a recognisable language for dissemination to an audience prepared to pay for it. Neither the media, and even less the journalists involved, are responsible for these events, whether they be earthquakes, cases of political corruption, football results or government decisions. They “tell us what is going on” (no need for us to go into the necessary nuances of that statement here).

Thus, their responsibility as far as reporting these events are concerned is based almost exclusively on an audience-based corporate policy and on the competition with other media on the market. In other words, that responsibility is not based on the relationship between the media and those that consume it, because neither are directly connected to the events reported (which does not mean that they are not affected by it or that they could become “news material” at some point).

This aspect of the media is fundamental, highlighted particularly by the Internet as we will see over the next few weeks, because the culture of the traditional media and consequently the body of knowledge and experience that has been formalised to train journalists in the journalistic profession, is related to that “externalisation” of information and the consequent absence of responsibility between the emitters and receivers of it. Journalistic technique corresponds to the way journalists gather, prepare and emit information in the context of the particular media concerned, and the audience does not have much say in this (readers, the protagonists of events, etc.) That’s why, amongst other reasons, it was (and still is) necessary to draw up a journalistic code of ethics to which the media and journalists voluntarily subscribe, each in their own sphere of interests. And that’s why, amongst other reasons, self-regulation continues to be the only way of controlling this way of producing the news.

So, no matter how many ethical codes are drawn up, or ombudsmen employed, readers do not really have much of a chance to intervene in the editorial policies of the media. The only way they can influence editorial policy is through letters to the editor or by simply not buying the media concerned. Neither of which guarantee that what they really would like will really happen: modifying some aspects of editorial policy of a media whose societal vision interests them in general. In fact, we all know that this is impossible: in a context of mass information production for mass audiences it is absolutely unthinkable to satisfy everyone all of the time. In cases of conflict it is abiding journalistic criteria (and those of the journalists who exercise them) that invariably take precedence.

To sum up, amongst the most outstanding features of the information producing process in the traditional media, we could highlight the following:

a) The media possess the human and technical resources for accessing the information that interests society and the latter is the audience that consumes it once it has been processed and developed by the media.

b) This is a highly hierarchical and vertical process: only the few possess the resources and means to transmit to the many, to mass audiences, who, by definition, have no way of getting at the information they need on their own.

c) The news lies out there, beyond. The media have to look for it, develop and disseminate it to their respective audiences. With the appearance of the big communications groups, the news has begun to become “interior”, they have started to extract it from their own corporate policies, without affecting the basic model either in the way that news is obtained and processed, nor in the way they relate to their audiences (see last week’s editorial).

d) There is no direct responsibility between the world of news events and the media (and journalists). The latter always develop the news in accordance with reigning market criteria.

e) The media is not directly responsible to its audience for the way that it produces and develops information. Collateral mechanisms of control exist but they do not affect the basic editorial line (letters to the editor and the choice of consuming the product or not).

f) This model is standardised the world over. The same applies to the training of journalists to accede to the job market that this journalistic model affords. Their techniques and tools are related to the ways and means for obtaining and disseminating information defined by the industry within the communications map proposed by the traditional media.

In articles to come we will take a look at the way the Internet has shaken up this map and the model that inspired it, leading it unceasingly, towards a crisis of enormous proportions. A crisis which, of course, affects not only a historical way of producing information (where is the news now?), but also the leading players within the framework of the journalism of the Industrial Revolution (where does that put journalism and journalists?).

Translation: Bridget King