Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


News Culture

Stuart Allan
Open University Press: Buckingham
1999
0335199569 (pb); 0335199577 (hb)
13.99 (pb); 45.00 (hb)
235 pp.

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The look of this new series is striking and if all the books are as professional inside as this one, it will be a great success. News Culture provides an excellent textbook that covers the range of issues that students of journalism, sociology, politics, media and cultural studies would expect to read about on a second or third year option covering news media. The writing is clear and accessible and the arguments presented are well-referenced summaries of the key debates around the topic of news. As well as a good index and list of references, there is a glossary, further reading at the end of each chapter and bullet points to highlight learning issues. The introduction identifies a number of themes of the book; the history of different news media, politics, truth, audiences, gender, racism and journalism. Two relationships are mentioned early which surface at a number of later points; that between news culture and entertainment and that between news and the 'public sphere'. I'll return to these after describing some of the rest of the book's contents.

Chapters 1 and 2 provide an engaging yet detailed and thorough overview of the historical development of newspapers and broadcast news respectively. There are no surprises here but the contrast between the US and the UK experience brings out the themes of objectivity, professionalism, ownership and commodification. Examples of how the news as 'facts' can be biased by government or advertising, or replaced by 'soft news' and padding are used to give an edge to this material. In Chapter 3 theoretical concepts such as propaganda, rules, codes, frames or 'spheres' are introduced to analyse news content. Just who is responsible for setting the tone of news - journalists, the state, politicians, media owners, key institutions, classes - is discussed using a number of key contributors to the literature including: Herman and Chomsky, Hallin, Galtung and Ruge, Schlesinger and Tumber, Deacon and Tumber, Hall et al.

The opposition between 'objectivity' and 'ideology' used to organise Chapter 3 is modified in Chapter 4 with a careful explanation of the difficult but crucial concept of hegemony. Gramsci is quoted but it is the critique of news culture from Hall and his colleagues dating back to 1978 that is used to explore the relationship between news, the state and the public. Although Allen is bang up to date with the literature and applies it to newspapers, radio and television in turn, what is striking about this excellent presentation of complex material is how little the debate has moved on in twenty years. However, reading this will inhibit students from pointing too quickly at those guilty of distorting the news. Instead they will be encouraged to consider the complex processes by which news, while inflected with the interests of classes and institutions, is continually subject to variation, modification and contest. Chapter 5 shows how audiences use news for a variety of purposes beyond the rather narrower intentions of those who produce it. Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the topics of gender and race in the news and are made interesting through the analysis of recent examples - I would have liked to see more earlier in the book.

As I read through the book I felt that the questions 'what is news' and 'what is news for?' were not raised forcefully enough. Implicit in the final chapter, which again opposes the professionalism of journalists in presenting hard news with the business of entertainment, is the idea that it is only through informed public debate that democracy can serve the needs of society and its members. But this notion is taken for granted and not criticised. Just how much 'hard news' is required for democratic politics before we all suffer from what Douglas Coupland (1991) calls 'Historical Overdosing'? Just what is it about the cult of celebrity and the fascination with private lives that makes it 'news' for so many producers and consumers in our news culture? These are questions that Stuart Allen's book raised but gave me little idea about how to tackle. There again, if he had written the book that I'm now asking for, one that sets news within the broader cultural and political sphere, it would not be such a useful teaching resource. Perhaps his next project will open up the areas of 'infotainment' and the 'public sphere' to find how news fits in.

Tim Dant
Manchester Metropolitan University

Reference

COUPLAND, Douglas (1991) Generation X: Tales for an accelerated culture, London: Abacus.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999