News Culture (Issues in Cultural & Media Studies S.)

Allan, Stuart
Open University Press, Buckingham
0335210732 (pb)

Order this book?

Cover of book News Culture presents a comprehensive, historicized account of the emergence of the modern news media in Britain and the USA, encompassing the telegraph wire, print, radio, television and the internet. It aims to move beyond the analysis of 'media' and 'society' as dichotomous theoretical categories, which has limited debate to the relative impact of one sphere upon the other, as exemplified by the 'media effects' literature. In contrast, Allen employs the concept of 'news culture' to problematise the analytical separation of the cultural from the socio-economic, which stems from the media/society dichotomy, and goes on to analyse news as a mediating discourse embedded within changing social and ideological terrain. Through this analytical perspective, Allen contributes to an understanding of ways in which seeing the media as separate from, or outside, 'society', is misleading both analytically and empirically, and has often resulted in an over-estimation of the power and autonomy of the media. Most importantly, how the pursuit of objectivity that is often taken to define news operates within parameters delineated by hegemonic 'commonsense'.

The concept of 'news culture', which places the social and the media within a historical framework, enables Allen to provide an insightful account of the emergence of 'objectivity' as a defining criterion. The definition of 'news' as an impartial and 'objective' account of reality, rather than debate and opinion, first appeared with the emergence of popular commercial presses in the mid-1800s. The mass-market press claimed an independence from political interest and control, which was often expressed in the cultural value of objectivity of its reportage. Allen brings out the contradictions by pointing to its basis in the need of the market to avoid political debate. Press reliance on advertising revenue limited debate to avoid alienating sponsors and readership, while the value of impartiality was cited by newspaper owners who claimed that trade union membership compromised the ability of journalists to report objectively. Chapter four develops the concept of 'news culture' to show how the uncritical pursuit of objectivity works to naturalise and depoliticise, by presenting the news as an apparently unmediated account of reality, and consigning alternative accounts to subjective opinion or the plain un-newsworthy. Such market based impartiality leads to a detached concern with a neutral 'objectivity' rather than the obligation of journalists to debate and affirm what they consider the informed truth and opinion in the public interest.

After evaluating liberal pluralist and political economy positions, Allen argues for an analysis of 'news values', which is mindful of the critical limits of liberal 'objectivity' whilst not 'conflating' news with propaganda. He sees this more nuanced analysis as necessarily grounded in the small-scale, ethnographic study of the everyday practices of the newsroom. In chapters four to six, and parts of seven, the procedures of the newsroom are examined in detail, showing how the content of broadcast news is shaped by myriad factors, including journalistic practices of sourcing and narrative writing, as well as the impact of class, race and gender inequalities in newsroom work. This detailed micro analysis highlights how news values work as a taken for granted set of assumptions, shaping the events that get to be termed 'news' in the first place, and underlining the point that content analysis must start from a critical consideration of the process of selection. Allen's focus on small-scale procedures does reveal how newsroom procedures, underwritten by a commonsense honed by the status quo, do define the neutral position of consensus that delineates objectivity and also show the impossibility of separating fact and value. What then appears as 'news' does not reflect reality, 'rather it provides a codified definition of what should count as the reality of an event' (p.4). Although the critique of objectivity is a theme addressed by many writers on the media, Allen provides a particularly insightful analysis here, which both historicises the emergence of objectivity in the market and ethnographically 'makes strange' its operation in the social and ideological practices of the newsroom. In particular, the neglected issue, of how superficial news content in the tabloid press is justified by journalists' erroneous and patronising attitudes towards the intelligence of their readers, when such content best serves the interests of advertising revenue.

However, while the ethnographic study of the newsroom does tell us about the procedures that result in news that is 'codified' and 'objective', the shortcoming of micro-analysis is that it cannot encompass why particular codifications appear for these are governed by the wider political interests within which the newsroom works. While, as Allen argues, journalism cannot be reduced to propaganda, it could surely be argued that this is not through want of attempts by government to tighten control over domestic and foreign news reporting. This book could do more to address how British and US governments need to manufacture and manage a sense of 'debate' in the news media that has been removed from electoral politics, while promoting policy through 'spin' and lobby journalism. This marginalisation of dissent, which has been particularly marked change in Britain, and the limitation of public debate, means that journalists now have a smaller range of sources to consult when preparing a news report. Paradoxically, it could be argued that such weak electoral support mean that British and USA governments now lack the public credibility for propaganda campaigns to function.

Chapter eight, new in this edition, does adopt an international political perspective, analysing how the impact of Internet news sites and weblogs upon news media since September 11th. Public scepticism towards newspaper and television news coverage has led to readers seeing the Internet as offering a wide variety of prompt, updated news. Allen's analysis of the media as part of the socio-political can relate such popular scepticism to the under-resourced newsroom brought by declining commitment to the values of public service broadcasting, the provision of which formed the basis for journalism's claims to professional status in the early 1900s. Indeed, Allen's analysis of the media within its political context could be extended here to examine current scepticism towards the mainstream media as indicative of the broader crisis of political legitimacy in Britain and the USA that has been produced by debates about the illegal status of war in Iraq. As government accounts of the war are questioned, the mainstream press have branched out from government and lobby journalist sources to include images and accounts from people who witnessed events. Citizen-produced news-sites mark a significant shift in journalistic practice, one which necessitates a rethinking of the producer/audience model upon which reception studies have been based. The internet, like any other news media, however, can become increasingly controlled by state censorship or advertisers' interests, so does not in itself safeguard democracy, nor confront the problem of audience fragmentation. The final chapter considers how the quality and accountability of news could be maintained as the commodification of news intensifies and the public service role of broadcasting subsumed to the market. The historical perspective in this book suggests a useful comparison between the triumph of market forces over popular press content in the nineteenth century, which greatly reduced the number of newspaper titles in print, and the impact of the global media corporations over news today.

Philippa Hall
University of Central Lancashire