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A look at the media as an institution concerned in commercial interests

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made. Sharon Beder's Other Publications The media are accused of bias by people from both ends of the political spectrum, but journalists, editors and owners maintain that they provide an objective source of news.

This chapter will consider the ways in which the news is shaped and how this in turn influences the way environmental issues are reported and constructed in the mass media. A number of books have been published recently highlighting this supposed liberal bias including Press Bias and Politics: How the media frame controversial issues Kuypers 2002Bias: Rescuing America from the Media Elite Goldberg 2003a. Accusations of liberal bias, however are not new.

As part of the political resurgence of conservative ideas they sought to build their own reliable media outlets and to have more influence over existing media organisations. Robert Parry, author of Fooling America, describes a well-financed plan to build a conservative press in the United States: Most conservative organisations produced their own publications or media programs.

Corporate-funded think-tanks and public relations firms recruited journalists from the mainstream media to their own staffs. Recent examples include What Liberal Media?


The truth about bias and the news Alterman 2003 a look at the media as an institution concerned in commercial interests Censored 2001: The political economy of the mass media Herman and Chomsky 2002. Background to the Issues The concentration of media ownership into the hands of a few people is of concern to people at both ends of the political spectrum.

For example, Rupert Murdoch controls more than half the newspapers in Australia, including the only major daily newspaper in Brisbane, Adelaide and many regional cities, and is lobbying for changes to Australian media ownership laws to enable him to buy a television network Lawson 2003. The power of the media is not just in its editorial line but also in covering some issues rather than others, some views but not others.

It is this power that makes politicians so reluctant to cross the large media moguls and regulate the industry in the public interest. So while politicians would like to regulate against concentration of media ownership they are not as tough as they would like to be on this score. For liberal critics of the media, however, the business orientation of media owners and their relationship with other businesses is just as much a problem for media independence as the concentration of ownership in a few hands.

Most media organisations are owned by multinational multi-billion dollar corporations that are involved in a number of businesses apart from the media, such as forestry, pulp and paper mills, defence, real estate, oil wells, agriculture, steel production, railways, water and power utilities Kellner 1990: Such conglomerates not only create potential conflicts of interest in reporting the news but ensure that the makers of the news take a corporate view.

The boards of these media companies typically include representatives of international banks, multinational oil companies, car manufacturers and other corporations. Commercial television and radio stations tend to get all their income from advertisers and newspapers are increasingly dependent on advertising. Tens of billions of dollars are spent every year just on television advertising and the media does its best to create a media product that suits those advertisers.

The influence of corporate advertisers on media content is both indirect, in that the media shape content to attract an audience that will suit its advertisers, and direct in that media outlets edit material that is likely to offend advertisers, especially with news stories Franklin 1994: However, advertisers are not usually as blatantly upfront as that see Jackson, et al.

Corporations can also use sponsorship, a more indirect form of advertising, to influence the content of the media: Prospective shows are often discussed with major advertisers, who review script treatments and suggest changes when necessary. Adjustments are sometimes made to please sponsors … Corporate sponsors figure they are entitled to call the shots since they foot the bill — an assumption shared by network executives, who quickly learn to internalise the desires of their well-endowed patrons.

Lee and Solomon 1990: But the journalistic norm of objectivity is not the same as truth. It has three components. And there associated conventions: The ideal of objectivity gives journalists legitimacy as independent and credible sources of information. The rhetoric of journalistic objectivity supplies a mask for the inevitable subjectivity that is involved in news reporting and is supposed to reassure audiences who might otherwise be wary of the power of the media.

It also ensures a certain degree of autonomy to journalists and freedom from regulation to media corporations Entman 1989: However, news reporting involves judgements about what is a good story, who will be interviewed for it, what questions will be asked, which parts of those interviews will be printed or broadcast, what facts are relevant and how the story is written: Which of the facts noted will be included in the story? Which of the reported events will become the first paragraph?

Key Debates

Which story will be prominently displayed on page 1 and which buried inside or discarded? Objectivity in journalism has nothing to do with seeking out the truth, except in so much as truth is a matter of accurately reporting what others have said. This contrasts with the concept of scientific objectivity where views are supposed to be verified with empirical evidence in a search for the truth Nelkin 1987: Ironically, journalistic objectivity discourages a search for evidence; the balancing of opinions often replaces journalistic investigation altogether.

News Sources The news is shaped by the choice of people journalists interview for research, quotes and on-air appearances.

  • However, as these comments suggest, the assumption of its widespread nature was not always related to a certainty about those actually claiming fraudulently, but a perception supported by the belief that the system is very easily manipulated;
  • The climate policy objectives of the current coalition government in the UK revolve around de-carbonisation — a process which is enshrined in law through the 2008 Climate Change Act;
  • Reporting on Eastern European pollution;
  • The Daily Mirror is traditionally more left-wing, but also supportive of the Labour party;
  • But the wider implications for environmentalists seeking to change perceptions of environmental problems and encourage action to be taken to solve them is an area that requires further research and discussion.

The conventions of objectivity, depersonalisation and balance tend to transform the news into a series of quotes and comments from a remarkably small number of sources. Most journalists tend to use, as sources, people from the mainstream establishment, whom they believe have more credibility with their audience.

Highly placed government and corporate spokespeople are the safest and easiest sources in terms of giving stories legitimacy Entman 1989: Those without power, prestige and position have difficulty establishing their credibility as a source of news and tend to be marginalised McNair 1994: Journalists who have access to highly placed government and corporate sources have to keep them on side by not reporting anything adverse about them or their organisations.

The Role of the Media in the Construction of Public Belief and Social Change

Otherwise they risk losing them as sources of information. In return for this loyalty, their sources occasionally give them good stories, leaks and access to special interviews. Unofficial information, or leaks, give the impression of investigative journalism, but are often strategic manoeuvres on the part of those with position or power Ricci 1993: Balance means ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round Parenti 1986: For example, despite claims of anti-nuclear media bias by the nuclear industry, a FAIR study of news clippings collected by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over a five-month period found that no news articles cited anti-nuclear views without also citing a pro-nuclear response, whereas 27 per cent of articles cited only pro-nuclear views Grossman 1992.

Balance means getting opinions from both sides where the journalist recognises two sides but not necessarily covering the spectrum of opinion. More radical opinions are generally left out. Government environmental authorities can be used as an environmental source in one story and as an anti-environmentalist source in another.

Nor are opposing opinions always treated equally in terms of space, positioning and framing Parenti 1986: Balance does not guarantee neutrality even when sources are treated fairly, since the choice of balancing sources can be distorted.

FAIR gives the example of a Nightline show where radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh argued that volcanoes are the major cause of ozone depletion.

But giving equal treatment to two sides of an argument can often give a misleading impression. Phil Shabecoff, former environment reporter for the New York Times, gives the example of views on climate change: But I have seen a number of stories where its conclusions are given equal or less weight than those of a single scientist who has done little or no significant peer-review research in the field, is rarely, if ever, cited on those issues in the scientific literature, and whose publication is funded by a fossil-fuel industry group with an obvious axe to grind … For a reporter, at this stage of the debate, to give equal or even more weight to that lonely scientist with suspect credentials is, in my view, taking sides in the debate.

In one little corner, half a dozen loggers or millworkers hold a counter-demonstration on company time.

Why media representations of corporations matter for public health policy: a scoping review

Journalists who accurately report what their sources say can effectively remove responsibility for their stories onto their sources. The ideal of objectivity therefore encourages uncritical reporting of official statements and those of authority figures. In this way the biases of individual journalists are avoided but institutional biases are reinforced Ryan 1991: And important people are people in power.

Front Groups and Think-tanks Powerful corporations are not only represented in the media by corporate spokepeople but they also seek to multiply their voice by funding others to speak for them as well.

The use of front groups enable corporations to take part in public debates in the media behind a cover of community concern. When a corporation wants to oppose environmental regulations or support an environmentally damaging development it may do so openly and in its own name. When such groups do not already exist, the modern corporation can pay a public relations firm to create them.

Any institution with a vested commercial interest in the outcome of an issue has a natural credibility barrier to overcome with the public, and often, with the media.

Rose 1991 Corporate front groups often portray themselves as environmentalists. In this way corporate interests appear to have environmental support. The names of these groups are chosen because they sound as if they are grassroots community and environmental groups. In 2000 it came out of the closet and renamed itself Timber Communities Australia [http: Corporate front groups may also portray themselves as independent scientific groups whose aim is to cast doubt on the severity of the problems associated with environmental deterioration and create confusion by magnifying uncertainties and showing that some scientists dispute the claims of the scientific community.

For example groups funded by the fossil-fuel industry emphasise the uncertainty associated with global warming predictions Beder 2002b: Another strategy used by corporate front groups is to recognise environmental problems caused by corporations but to promote superficial solutions that prevent and pre-empt the sorts of changes that are really necessary to solve the problem.

  1. Without these, there would be less unemployment and therefore more tax revenue. We have been interested in exploring the key factors in the capacity of audiences to accept or reject messages, and the consequences of this for the shaping of public understanding.
  2. We set out initially to investigate the way in which audiences negotiate the coverage — a key element of this was the way in which they assess the credibility of sources and attribute trust. One of the ways PR experts enhance the image of their clients and show that they care is by emphasising and publicising their positive actions, no matter how trivial, and downplaying any negative aspects, no matter how significant.
  3. For liberal critics of the media, however, the business orientation of media owners and their relationship with other businesses is just as much a problem for media independence as the concentration of ownership in a few hands.
  4. This is a substantial increase, and provides evidence of genuine attitudinal change in response to the scenarios.
  5. In other words, TV debate is mostly limited to the views of the three main parties in Britain, the Conservative party, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats.

Sometimes they shift the blame from corporations to the individual citizen. For example, the Keep America Beautiful Campaign focuses on anti-litter campaigns but ignores the potential of recycling legislation and changes to packaging. The media often use these front groups as sources of information and quote their spokespeople without realising their corporate origins or acknowledging in their news reporting the corporate connections of the groups.

The same is true for think-tanks, which are overwhelmingly funded by corporations and wealthy corporate-aligned foundations. Various studies by FAIR have found that conservative and centrist think-tank experts are used as news sources many times more often than experts from progressive or left-leaning think-tanks Dolny 2000. These think-tanks are cited without any indication of their ideological basis or funding sources and their personnel are treated as independent experts Solomon 1996: The increasing trend for corporations to use front groups and friendly scientists as their mouthpieces has distorted media reporting on environmental issues since the media often do not differentiate between corporate front groups and genuine citizen groups, and industry-funded scientists are often treated as independent scientists.

Because of the myth of scientific objectivity journalists tend to have an uncritical trust in scientists Nelkin 1987: Nor do the mainstream media generally cover the phenomenon of front groups and think-tanks and artificially generated grassroots campaigns, which would serve to undermine their operation by exposing the deceit on a look at the media as an institution concerned in commercial interests they depend.

Public Relations Much of the news people read or watch on television is manufactured by PR firms and specialists, rather than discovered by journalists. Media and press releases include news, feature stories, bulletins, media advisories and announcements, all of which flood media offices.

Their purpose is to develop and maintain public goodwill for the organisation sending them as well as favourable government policies. Yet it is very difficult for the public to be able to distinguish real news from news generated by public relations. Often news stories are copied straight from news releases; at other times they are rephrased and sometimes they are augmented with additional material.

This practice does not vary much between large and small papers as larger papers need more stories and smaller papers have fewer staff to write their stories. According to various studies, press releases are the basis for 40—50 per cent of the news content of US newspapers Blyskal and Blyskal 1985: By providing the news feedstock, they cause reporters to react rather than initiate.