The social construction of the news

After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • how news is perceived
  • the selection and presentation of news
  • sociological theories about news production

The perception of news

News is presented in many different forms in the twenty-first century. However, as recently as in 2005, 72% of people indicated that television was their primary source of news coverage. Only 10% relied upon newspapers to obtain their news, a further 9% relied upon radio and 67% regarded television news as the most trusted news medium and saw it as a ‘window on the world’ offering the audience fair and unbiased ‘evidence’ of events as they happened. In contrast, despite sales of about 10 million daily, only 7%, saw newspapers in the same way.

Selection and presentation of news

McQuail (1992) argues that ‘news’ is not objective or impartial. Events happen, but this does not guarantee that they become news – not all events can be reported because of the sheer number of them. McQuail argues that news is a socially manufactured product because it is the end result of a selective process. Gatekeepers, such as editors and journalists, and sometimes proprietors, make choices and judgements about what events are important enough to cover and how to cover them.

Sociologists point out that the process of news selection is biased because it is dependent upon broad influences which include organisational routines and news values.

Organisational or bureaucratic routines

News coverage is shaped by the way television news companies and newspapers are organised. This can be illustrated in a number of ways.

  • Financial constraints – e.g., sending personnel overseas and booking satellite connections can be very expensive and may result in ‘news’ reports even if very little is actually happening, in order to justify such heavy costs. There has been a decline in expensive forms of news coverage such as investigative reporting or foreign affairs coverage because news organisations are cutting costs.
  • The amount of time available for a news bulletin or the column space in a newspaper, e.g. events are much more likely to be reported, especially on television, if they can be accompanied by live sound bites of speech and film footage from an actual location.
  • Deadlines – newspapers by their very nature are dated. All news included usually happened the day before. Television news is more immediate as it is often broadcast as it happens, i.e. rolling news.
  • Audiences – the content and style of news programmes is often dependent on the type of audience thought to be watching. Newspaper content too is geared to the social characteristics of a newspaper’s readers, e.g. The Sun is aimed at a working class young readership and so uses simplistic language because it believes that this is what its readership wants.

News values

KEY POINT - Spencer-Thomas (2008) notes that editors and journalists use the concept of news values to determine the newsworthiness of a particular story and to judge whether it will attract a significant readership or audience.

What is regarded as newsworthy varies according to the type of news outlet, i.e. it differs between newspapers, as well as television channels, depending upon the type of person who is thought to be reading or watching. These news values were catalogued by Galtung and Ruge (1965) and include:

  • Extraordinariness – unexpected, rare, unpredictable and surprising events have more newsworthiness than routine events because they are out of the ordinary, e.g. the tsunami that hit south-east Asia in 2004 or the unexpected death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.
  • Threshold – the bigger the size of the event, e.g. war or natural disaster, the more likely it will be reported nationally.
  • Unambiguity – events that are easy to grasp are more likely to be reported than those which are complex.
  • Reference to elite persons – the activities of the powerful and more recently, celebrities such as footballers, television personalities and pop stars are perceived as more newsworthy than the exploits of ordinary people.
  • Reference to elite nations – stories about people who speak English as their first language, look the same and have similar cultures as the audience receive more coverage than those involving people who do not, e.g. the USA is more newsworthy than most other countries. Even disasters are subject to this news value as symbolised by McLurg’s Law named after a British news editor, who once claimed that 1 dead Briton was worth 5 dead Frenchmen, 20 dead Egyptians, 500 dead Indians and 1000 dead Chinese in terms of news coverage.
  • Personalisation – complex events and policies are often reduced to conflict between personalities. This is because journalists and editors believe that their audiences will identify with a story if social events are seen as the actions of individuals, e.g. British politics is often presented as a personal showdown between the two party leaders.
  • Frequency – news events that occur over a short period of time fit in with news schedules better than long-term structural events such as inflation.
  • Narrative – journalists prefer to present news in the form of a story with heroes and villains, and a beginning, middle and end.
  • Negativity – bad news is regarded by journalists as more exciting and dramatic than good news and is seen as potentially attracting a bigger audience. Stories about death, tragedy, bankruptcy, violence, damage, natural disasters, political upheaval or extreme weather conditions are therefore always rated above positive stories.

Interesting news stories will, therefore, contain some of these news values, but they are unlikely to contain them all. Research conducted in the USA by Buckley gave 12 television editors 64 news stories, which they were asked to classify for newsworthiness. All classified them in a similar manner and those items most likely to be reported were those with the greatest number of news values.

Sociological theories about news production


Pluralists argue that journalists are professionals who are disinterested, impartial and objective pursuers of truth. Neo-pluralists suggest that, in the modern world of journalism, these goals are increasingly difficult to attain. Davies (2008) argues that modern day British journalism is characterised by what he calls churnalism – the uncritical over-reliance by journalists on ‘facts’ churned out by government spin doctors and public relations experts. He found that 80% of news stories in two national newspapers were sourced in this way over a two week period in 1997. Only 12% of stories were generated by journalists.

The power elite

Bagdikian (2004), in his critique of the American news media, suggests that almost all media owners in the USA are part of a wider power elite made up of a powerful industrial, financial and political establishment. Consequently, media owners ensure that the content of news is politically conservative and that their news outlets promote corporate values. Bagdikian notes how such values permeate news, e.g. most newspapers have sections dedicated to business news, but contain little on poverty or the growing gap between the rich and poor in the USA.

The propaganda model of the media

Herman and Chomsky (1988) argue that the media participate in propaganda campaigns helpful to elite interests. They suggest that media performance is largely shaped by market forces and that built into the capitalist system is a range of filters that work ceaselessly to shape media output, e.g. advertisers want their advertising to appear in a supportive selling environment whilst government can pressure the media with threats of withdrawal of TV licences and therefore control the flow of information.

Edwards and Cromwell (2006) argue that particular subjects, e.g. US/British government responsibility for genocide, vast corporate criminality and threats to the very existence of human life, are distorted, suppressed, marginalised and ignored by the British mass media. Leaders of developing countries of whom the West disapprove are uncritically demonised, whilst the USA is presented as the champion of democracy.

Marxist perspectives

The Marxist Hall agrees that news is supportive of capitalist interests because those in powerful positions have better access to media institutions than the less powerful. Hall argues that this is a result of the news values employed by most journalists. In particular, most journalists rank the views of politicians, police officers, civil servants and business leaders (Hall calls these groups primary definers) as more important (or credible) than those of pressure groups, trade unionists or ordinary people. Hall calls this the hierarchy of credibility.

However, Schlesinger (1990) is critical of theories that focus on the power of elites or owners because the media do not always act in the interests of the powerful. Contemporary politicians are very careful about what they say to the media because they are very aware that the media can shape public perceptions of their policies and practices and perhaps influence voting behaviour, as well as putting them under considerable pressure to resign.

Media owners too are engaged in competition with each other, as illustrated by newspaper price wars and the fact that some media owners have engaged in some very public conflicts with each other over matters of media ownership. Schlesinger argues that this does not suggest a unified media.

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