‘There are two kinds of journalism. There is the journalism that is trying to tell the truth and there is the journalism that treats the news as show business.’ (Max Hastings). Do you agree? Discuss on the basis of the literature read so far.
“A gifted man who isn’t interested in money is very hard to tame”, said Alistair Cooke of the BBC (cited in Randall 1996:92). It is almost a truth and dare game that is haunting modern journalism. While journalism denotes itself as an intense digging of facts, there is another side of the story: money. ‘There are two kinds of journalism. There is the journalism that is trying to tell the truth and there is the journalism that treats the news as show business.’ (Max Hastings). This essay first discusses how in modern parlance news is being increasingly treated as show business. Next, it focuses on the other side – journalism conveying the truth. And finally, it analyses both forms of journalism critically.
Journalism as show business
Taking into account the current scenario, journalism has become more sensationalist and becoming more based in show business. This concept can be divided into two parts. Firstly, even serious journalism is being written from an entertainment perspective. Exaggerations in journalism are common, to encourage gossip and draw public attention. The recent Silvio Berlusconi sex scandal is a perfect example. In the name of journalism, the press featured the woman involved in the scandal, “Ruby”, portraying her scantily dressed. Berlusconi had undoubtedly acted unprofessionally, and had previously been involved in other scandals, but it could be said that the press should have acted more responsibly. Loud headlines and pictures of the ‘dare to bare’ woman have made it a very saleable news story. The Sun, The Daily Telegraph have all been active participants in it.
Even in India, news is now almost synonymous with entertainment. In addition to Page 3 (celeb page) being a compulsory section, political and international affairs are also given an entertainment stance. The Times of India, the Hindustan Times, who are the major media players, are believers in show business. In one of its metropolitan cities, state elections are almost like a puppet show, and the press are heavily involved in it.
The other side of show business is when news content is hugely effected owing to media being treated as a business chain. It is the case where advertising determines news spaces, and even its editorial content. The owners of media organisations make every effort to manipulate news as per what suits them best. A few big media outlets run the ‘show’. Abuse of power by owners is common, who influence the performance of their workforce and the political process to fit their own corporate interests (Curran and Seaton 1997; Tunstall and Palmer 1991; Schiller 1989; Evans 1983).
A current example of this type of journalism can be Rupert Murdoch’s launch of the iPad-only newspaper The Daily, accessible only through the Apple iPad. Its content would deal with current affairs with several interactive multimedia techniques and video call facilities. The digital newspaper will charge the audience for each downloaded issue. Audience and media rating of news objectivity have gone into oblivion with attention drawn towards the newspapers multimedia audacity and not to mention News Corporation’s business sensation. “Nearly all major media companies are commercial corporations, whose primary function is creating profits for owners or stockholders” (Croteau and Hoynes 2001:1).
CEO of Time Warner Richard Parsons, chief of Disney Michael Eisner, Sumner Redstone from Viacom and Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corporation, seem to be running the show. Undoubtedly, they have always provided invaluable news, but media monopoly cannot be ruled out here. The world sees what the conglomerates want them to see. These conglomerates even exercise power over political leadership, directly or indirectly. “Prudent politicians treat the desires of all large corporations with care. But politicians treat the country’s most powerful media corporations with something approaching reverence” (Bagdikian 2004:29). In this context, it has been claimed that media have become increasingly dominant without being accountable in any way (RMO 2003; ROB 2003, cited in Brants and Haan 2010:415).
The notion of a free press gets dampened when yellow journalism, which once used to be a taboo for serious news, is now a media-style statement. The more colourful supplements with celeb gossip and teenage mantras, the more sellable the paper is and hence, the popularity of ‘infotainment’. “The ‘Murdochisation’ of television news, with its emphasis on entertainment and infotainment at the expense of the public-service role of the media, has changed the media landscape in the US and in Britain and, increasingly in other countries where Murdoch has been a major player since the 1990’s” (Thussu 2007:61). The Sun, for example, took “the tradition of British popular journalism -sometimes proud and sometimes tawdry – and turned it into a financial platform for domination of the electronic media” (Chippindale and Horrie 1999:487).
The concept of journalism treating the news as show business became even more popular with the advent of Internet journalism and mobile phone alerts. “Scandal and misconduct now enjoy a greater prominence than significant areas of government policy such as health, education, or law and order” (Franklin 1996:303). “Managers [at CBS News]…yielded to the encroachment of entertainment values from within. Not only were those values invited in, they were exalted. The line between entertainment and news were steadily blurred. Our centre of gravity shifted from the standards and practices of the news business to show business. In a meeting after meeting, “Entertainment Tonight” was touted as the model-visual images containing high emotional quotients that are passed on to the viewer unfiltered and unexamined” (Alter 1986:53).
Of late, the audience portrays an increasingly changing pattern in news consumption. Increasing commercialisation and competition within the media, and a decreasing loyalty among the audience shifted the notion of supply to a ‘demand market’ (Cuilenburg 1998). Market determines news selection and treatment. Hence, the popularity of ‘market-driven journalism’ (McManus 1994).
The concept of market-driven journalism came up as responses increased towards public demand. Popular market forces determine news selection and reporting. Public reading or viewing trends ultimately rate the newsworthiness of a story. There came a growing need to address market stipulations. Hence, news is what market drives command and news content is highly influenced by the audience. Both the print and electronic media are working harder to convince popular influences. Newspapers are focusing “to embrace such topics as parenting or hobbies or shopping, and willingness to billboard such subjects on the front page-often at the expense of government news” (Stepp 1991:21).
As Curran et al. say that American journalism is primarily geared for pacifying consumer demand (Curran et al. 2009:8).
Tabloidisation ultimately led to the establishment of newspapers that manufactured news keeping an eye towards saleability (Picard 1998; Wiener 1988). As Kalb pointed out on the constant downgrading of hard news and subsequent upgrading of sex, scandal and infotainment contributes to modern journalism (Kalb 1997). In regard to Britain, Franklin noted that news media have gradually turned to entertainment-based stories instead of providing a forum for informed debate on key political issues (Franklin 1997, cited in Thussu 2007:5). Journalism has changed its priorities, where soft news stories inclusive of lifestyle and fashion are gaining prominence over serious reportage of politics, business and international affairs. News organisations have increasingly turned to soft journalism, exemplified by the rise of local television news programmes, centred on crime, calamities and accidents (Bennett 2003).
Indeed, on both the BBC and ITV news, crime reporting increased at the expense of political coverage (Winston 2002). That is a very serious or critical observation as the BBC is involved in it. We all know the BBC is out of all market influences but certainly not from the government’s propaganda. According to Barnett et al., in developed countries like the US or some of the European countries, the commercialised news channels were increasingly dominated and influenced by news beats of showbiz, crime, sports, humour or human interest stories. However, it was affirmed that in UK the popular practice presented a steady equilibrium of serious, light and international news coverage (Barnett et al. 2000).
It is a well-known fact that the Indian and Pakistani media hyped up tennis star Sania Mirza and former Pakistan cricket captain Shoaib Mallick’s wedding. Editors were quite happy to use it in lead headlines. It truly invites awe to see India’s top tabloid-Mumbai Middday website (on March 1, 2011) making absolute mockery of the recent Gaddafi issue. While Libya has been jostling in anti-Gaddafi revolt, Midday went with the headline “DJ Gaddafi an online hit”. It might have even been more popular among the audience than the actual turmoil.
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (1994) proposed a ‘propaganda model’ in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which emphasised media functioning in a capitalist democracy (specifically in the United States). They identified five filters constituting the propaganda model. They pointed out how ownership gained supremacy with increasing concentration of a few media tycoons, for whom journalism is a show business chain. Advertising, which is the ultimate source of income for the media, influences its editorial content besides determining its news quantity and quality. News promoter’s persuasion upon news selection, flak and anticommunism are some of the concepts Herman and Chomsky concluded fit in a commercialised free media society.
Wooing advertisers gained such supremacy for media houses that it is aimed at an affluent, or “quality” audience. Otis Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times was quoted saying, “We arbitrarily cut back some of our low-income circulation….The economics of American newspaper publishing is based on an advertising base, not a circulation base” (cited in Bagdikian 2004:231). “Even if The Guardian were to increase dramatically its readership by printing pictures of Page 3 girls, the loss of advertising revenue would not make it worthwhile for the paper to boost circulation in this way” (Sanders 2006:135).
In India, advertising determines media impact. The Statesman, which dominated the media space as the patriarchal print media firm, ultimately succumbed to the ad revenues of The Times of India. It formulated massive advertising strategies that witnessed the paper throwing well established media firms out of competition overnight. In television, advertisers refrain from programmes that concern serious genre and rather opt for commercial broadcasts. Hence we can say, in order to magnetise advertisers, the media actually plays with news content. This has ultimately led to news being treated as an entertaining commodity.
Journalism telling the truth
Among this chaos, we cannot forget that there is another responsible side to journalism, where it tries to depict the truth. It encompasses moral and social responsibility, where sensationalist news gets a back seat and serious news is at the forefront. Focus lay on economic and political issues which unfolds societal truth to the audience. It takes the form of informative journalism. Journalism has also been seen as empathically responsive in which it acts as a crusade to uplift downgraded sections of society (Brants and Haan 2010:418). The media often launch campaigns to address a cause, sometimes tackling pressing issues that affect social standing. Developmental and peace journalism may be referred to as the journalism of truth.
The impression of peace journalism has incited journalists into blaming defenders of the theory of violating the ideals of ‘objectivity’ (Loyn 2007). As Galtung says, peace journalism is people-centred, in which it gives voice to the voiceless. It is truth-centered as well, as it unleashes untruth on all sides (Galtung 2002, cited in Ottosen 2010: 262). Peace journalism has been noted for its effort to encourage transparency in a crisis situation. It promotes empathy and highlights trauma which needs urgent attention. Several researchers have typecast it as good journalism. Sometimes journalists identify deception as a necessity for public service, for highlighting misconducts of political elites or people in power. As Sanders said, “truth and truthfulness are at the heart of the journalistic enterprise. On the whole, journalists aim to be truthful. But there are times when in order to be truthful or to obtain information so that a truthful story may be told, reporters believe it is necessary to lie” (Sanders 2006: 45).
Perhaps it can be said that public service media gives more importance to ‘real’ news and puts commercialisation on the back foot.
Journalism for truth signifies following certain journalistic ethics which are essential both on the part of the news organisation as well the audience, specifically in democratic societies. Reporting should be just and unbiased fact based accounts that are devoid of any commercial or political influence. That definitely includes propaganda. “A failure of impartiality in journalism is a failure to respect one of the methods required in order to fulfill the goal of journalism: getting at the truth of the matter” (Kieran 2002:35). Ruigrok made it noteworthy by saying, “more recent conceptualisations of news concentrate on the impossibility of news as a reflection of reality” (Ruigrok 2008: 294). This is a severe rebuke to journalistic ethics.
The Watergate scandal was a major boost in enhancing the influential role of journalism. Call it muckraking, sting operations or investigative journalism. And Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein remain the heroes of the Washington Post, who dared to uncover the audacious truth. Though it was a triumph for American journalism, it is an asset of journalism in general which illustrated its exclusiveness amongst other factors. It typecast journalism as valour, where journalists uncover phony issues even at the cost of their reputation and life. Woodward refused to overemphasise the press and argued that it’s “horse-shit” to blame the press for bringing down Nixon. The press always plays a passive or aggressive role, but it’s a mistake to overemphasise the media’s coverage (cited in Feldstein 2004).
Embedded journalism can sometime be referred to as the search for truth. When American journalists were embedded during the Iraq war, it provided unrestricted access to the real fight. However it was later claimed that the final images that were produced were misleading. Randall referred to journalistic ethics as either codification of prevalent behaviour and culture, or “an irrelevant exhortation to standards of behaviour that are doomed to be unmet”. He claimed that either way, no substantial point is made by either of it (Randall 1996:93).
Investigative journalism lies somewhere in between the commercial aspect and traditional ‘news’ journalism. Though it is an utmost search for truth, it can also be a profitable showcasing. As journalists dig into the private lives of personalities, such instances create a splatter among the audience.
But how will journalism, which has an enormous liability towards the society, treat incidences of rape, natural calamity, war and terrorist invasions? As Brayne noted, journalists have an intense responsibility to report such stories ethically. He claimed that journalists are first responders to crisis and disaster; but they usually fail to recognise the psychological implications of that responsibility (Brayne 2007:1). However it gets difficult when reportage comprises war coverage. On one side it is vital to cover the crises, the trauma and the mishap. On the other side it becomes even more crucial as to ‘who gets the first bite’. Here media draws criticism as it falls prey to malicious reporting, which is absolutely unethical.
However, both the forms of journalism can be criticised, for example, in the coverage of Princess Diana’s death. This became a media circus, and the royal family were hounded in their most private moments. Michael Jackson’s private life was also preyed on. Nichols and McChesney (2009) argued that by cutting down on reporters and upholding less expensive journalism based on trivia and sensationalism, media organisations were able to maximise profit for years. Finally, readers and viewers gave up on “products” that no longer contained much in the way of news.
In Western corporate media, the practice of peace journalism can be hard. Media moguls will not risk reducing income for the sake of human interest stories. That is a shame for the media, which lays subdued under the slavery of ‘wealthy assets’.
However, there have been contradictory views among researchers and scholars over the notion of show business or sensationalism. It has been argued that dramatised coverage of news stories destabilises the role of the media in a free democratic society (Franklin 1997; McManus 1994). Some of them have commented that the urge to go anti-elitist have triggered the production of a more consumer-oriented way of news packaging (Blumler and Kavanagh 1999; Franklin 1997). In contrast to these viewpoints, Stevens pointed out the utility of sensational news in ways of helping the society to distinguish between the morally acceptable and unacceptable practices (Stevens 1985). In support of entertainment-based journalism, it has been claimed that sensational news stories are definitely not synonymous with low quality or degraded journalism (Hofstetter and Dozier 1986). Entertaining journalism has been asserted to be in sync with popular culture rather than the conventional propagandist view presented by the elite press (Langer 1998; Fiske 1992).
From the above discussion, we can conclude that the practice of journalism is now dependant on aspects beyond the representation of reality. Business or moneymaking is gaining supremacy with an ardent inclination towards entertaining management of news coverage. Undoubtedly news quality is suffering due to it. It is only examples like John Hersey’s Hiroshima or Edward Murrow’s Battle of Britain that still reinforces us that true journalism would never fully give way to show business journalism. While, on the other side it is equally important to sustain profit margins as market drivers and media rivalry are inseparable entities. Hence, infotainment would continue to survive, if media industries need to thrive. Even under the spell of show business, journalism of truth should irrevocably stand out.
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