Media bias is a buzzword for the presumption of a liberal bias in the news media, but the inescapable fact is that all news media are biased, because everyone, liberal or conservative, take their biases with them when they leave for work each day, and reporters are no different from anyone else in that regard. Comments about the presumed prejudices that affect news coverage beg the question of where “news” actually comes from. What turns a happenstance event taking place in some faraway part of the world into a news item? This is the first in a series of articles in which those questions will be examined.
Press Agents Write Most of the News
Before the Internet, there were only five sources of information for the leads news organizations turn into the stories that appear every day. Now there are six, including press releases, wire services, tips, emergency services radio transmissions, just happening to be there when news happens to happen, and the ever-present Internet.
First and foremost among the six primary news sources, believe it or not, are press releases. Sometimes, one has to drill down through several layers of coverage, but when it gets down to the source, more often than not, most news stories start as press releases. Most outsiders – those who are not directly involved in journalism – might be amazed to learn that the majority of news stories begin with press releases from individuals or organizations seeking coverage for an issue or an event. (A press conference is a press release in real-time, but reporters get to those press conferences by invitations that come in the form of press releases.)
Every major corporation in America, and a great many smaller ones, issue press releases whenever something newsworthy occurs within their operations. These news items can be as mundane as a quarterly financial report, or as supercharged as the sudden firing of a chief executive officer. New product announcements, monthly sales figures, attempts at mergers and acquisitions – anything that puts the company into the spotlight in a positive way begins with a press release from the company to the news media. Enterprising business reporters will struggle through financial statements looking for “breaking” stories without realizing that financial statements are really just a type of press release.
The business world is not unique in its pursuit of coverage. Government, from the White House down to the local County Clerk’s office, sends out regular press releases whenever they do anything, or whenever anything happens to which they must respond. Every member of the house and senate, every member of every state legislature, every governor, mayor, city counselor, and every government department and agency, employs full-time press agents – most of them former reporters – to make sure their views are heard on every conceivable subject upon which they have an opinion.
Academia also gets into the act, whenever anything positively newsworthy occurs on a college campus, including announcements from research institutions associated with the school. Other nonprofit organizations issue press releases about their positions on issues affecting their missions.
News junkies would be amazed to learn how many of the news stories they read is not just stimulated by press releases, but are actually nothing more than the press releases themselves, which are often written in news style by the press agents, or re-written press releases with the same content as the originals. Broadcasters routinely air “packages” from “special correspondents” that are really nothing more than press releases but look and sound just like the other reports on the local news. Sometimes, these releases actually make their way into the network feeds, to the embarrassment of the hoodwinked networks.
Wire Services: News Before the Internet
In the old days, before the Internet, the second most important source of news stories were the news agencies or wire services. The first news agency, Agence France-Presse, was founded in 1835, but the first true “wire service,” was the New York Associated Press (NYAP), which was founded in 1846 to facilitate reporting on the Mexican-American War.
Today’s version of the NYAP, the Associated Press, and competitors like Reuters, continue to gather news from their member periodicals and redistribute the news to their membership, while also maintaining their own news bureaus in major cities and hot spots around the world. Syndicates like the ones owned by the New York Times and The Washington Post distribute their content to smaller newspapers who cannot afford to cover international stories the way the Times and the Post can.
Collectively, the wire services were the primary source for everything except local news, which was generally defined as anything happening within the state where the publication was located, except in major metropolitan areas that cross state lines, such as New York does.
The wire services and the syndicates still play their role. The old fashioned teletype machines have been supplanted by media feeds through password protected websites where news travels more quickly from source to destination, but the process of collecting and disseminating the news still remains the same.
Tips Do Not Ensure Promptness
After the wire services, the next most important source of the leads that become news are tips from the public. Tips ranging from shouted telephone calls from someone present at a crime scene or a fire, to whispered insinuations about the private behaviors of public figures, and unsigned letters to the editor alleging malfeasance in office.
Tips have to be handled carefully but, believe it or not, tips are always checked out because nothing would be more embarrassing than missing a scoop because a tip was overlooked or ignored. Many come from crank callers. Others come from well-meaning but misinformed citizens. Some come from business competitors or political opponents. Occasionally, people are so desperate for publicity that they rat themselves out on some inconsequential matter, just to promote more coverage for themselves. (Some people apparently still believe the old and misleading canard that there is no such thing as bad publicity.)
Three of the most famous “tips” shredded the presidential ambitions of two hopeful candidates and forced one disgraced president to step down from the Oval Office.
In 1974, a series of tips led Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to the evidence that eventually forced Richard Nixon to resign, the only president ever to do so. In 1988, whispered rumors about Colorado Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart’s extra-marital activities triggered an investigation by two Miami Herald reporters, who nailed Hart’s hide to barn door, forcing him from the race.
In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made some disparaging remarks about 47 percent of the American people at a private fundraising dinner. His off-the-record, just-between-us-chickens remarks were secretly recorded by a bartender serving drinks at the function.
Several months later, tips about the obscure, anonymously posted video were the basis of an expose by Mother Jones reporter David Corn, which had a statistically demonstrable effect on Romney performance at the polls.
Sometimes, tips rise to the level of leaks. The difference between a tip and a leak is that a tip comes from a third party, while a leak comes from the source. On the personal level, tipsters are not risking arrest or imprisonment. Leakers do take those risks.
The Pentagon Papers, released by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, represented the single largest disclosure of political misfeasance in American history… until Edward Snowden released thousands of pages of classified documents, revealing the extent to which the U.S. government was spying on its own people, and the rest of the world. Ellsberg himself called Snowden a courageous whistle-blower and described his actions as essential to the struggle to preserve the right to privacy.
Sometimes, however, whistle-blowing backfires on the whistle-blower. While Edward Snowden sits in Moscow, a guest of Vladimir Putin, Chelsea Elizabeth Manning, formerly Bradley Edward Manning, is currently serving a 35 year prison sentence for releasing an even larger stash of classified military documents.
Occasionally, tips and leaks lead to problems, when they involve the disclosure of crimes committed or still in progress, which puts the reporter on the horns of the dilemma of when to report the story and when to call the cops.
Late Breaking News from the Emergency Band Radio
Local breaking news sometimes still comes from the emergency band radio, continuously monitored by young reporters looking for stories that no one else has jumped on yet. Today, some of that traffic comes through the Internet instead of the radio, and it is more likely that news organizations will receive press releases from the scene of an event directly to their email boxes, rather than from scanning the emergency frequencies.
Serendipity: Being There When News Happens
It does not happen often, but reporters sometimes just happen to be there when a news story happens. Usually crime-related or natural disaster stories get covered this way and, sometimes, civilians who happen to be there when an event takes place cross over the line between civilian and journalist, becoming on-the-scene reporters. This process often begins with a Tweet announcing something that has happened. A news organization picks up on the Tweet, contacts the Tweeter, and uses that person to collect information about the event that is unfolding around them.
Sometimes, however, serendipity does not happen by accident. Reporters gets tips from callers, or they pick up on a press release announcing a demonstration, or get phone calls from a campaign staffer about an impromptu press conference, and they just happen to show up on the scene when news breaks out.
How The Internet Changed Everything
The Internet has changed the newspaper business forever, and perhaps not for better, but it has now become the second most important news gathering resource, after press releases. Some would say that it has superseded the press release because, today, most press releases appear first on the Internet, but that confuses the Internet as a communications device with the Internet as a primary source of information.
The impact of the Internet on the newspaper business is self-evident. In 2005, the newspaper industry took in $49 billion in advertising revenues, while the entire Internet took in just $13 billion. In 2013, the newspaper industry took in $21 billion and the Internet took in $43 billion.
The Internet’s effect on news gathering and the dissemination of news is, however, much more subtle and far-reaching than its effect on the bottom line of the newspaper business. The Internet has not only changed the way the news media disseminates information to the public; it has also changed the way that news is collected, analyzed, verified, substantiated, stored, retrieved and monetized.
Next: Those Were the Days – Manufacturing News Before the Internet.
By Alan M. Milner
Look for me on Twitter:@alanmilner