Churnalism and the News

Churnalism refers to a process where journalists produce news based on pre-packaged press-releases from government spin doctors, public relations consultants or news agencies without doing independent research or even checking their facts.

The journalist Waseem Zakir has been credited with first using the term in 2008 while working for the BBC when he noted that more and more journalists were resorting to Churnalism and that there was a corresponding decline in journalists actually going out and doing their own reporting and checking facts for themselves.

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The rise of Churnalism

It seems that in the last two decades there has been a further increase in Churnalism…

Davis (2008) found that 80% of stories in the Times, the Guardian, Independent, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail were wholly or partially constructed from second-hand material provided by news agencies or public relations firms such as the Press Association. He further found that many of the companies providing material for these newspapers were actively promoting particular political or economic interests.

Philips (2010) pointed out that reporters have increasingly been asked to rewrite stories that have appeared in other newspapers or websites, such as the BBC News Site, and to lift quotes without attributing them.

The rise of the blogosphere also raises the possibility that professional journalists might lift quotes from bloggers who aren’t as constrained by media industry standards and may derive their information from unverified sources, even from rumours circulating on social media.

The causes and consequences of the rise of churnalism

The causes of the rise of churnalism seem to be cost-cutting – it is simply cheaper for news companies to get their journalists to use pre-packaged material rather than do critical, investigative journalism. Political parities and public relations companies are more than happy to provide material for free because they are effectively promoting the views of the party or of the company who paid for the press-releases to be written.

Time pressure also plays a role – in the world of rapid 24 hour news journalists may not have time to go and do their own reporting or even check facts before their deadlines.

The first consequence of increasing churnalism are that there is a narrowing of the news agenda, with fewer original sources providing news to a wider range of newspapers.

There is also likely to be an increase in bias towards those companies with the time and money available to provide press-releases – which supports the Instrumentalist Marxist view of the media.

There could also be a decrease in the accuracy of news reporting, if journalists aren’t checking their facts.

Sources/ find out more…

Davis (2008) Flat Earth News

Philips (2010) Old Sources: New Bottles in Fenton (2010) New Media, Old News

Wiki – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churnalism

Image source… https://anotherangryvoice.blogspot.com/2017/10/how-mainstream-media-churnalism-works.html

 

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The Social Construction of News

The news is a socially manufactured product, rather than an objective ‘window on the world’.

Many events happen in reality which do not get reported in the news and those which do appear in the news are placed in a particular order of priority and ‘framed’ by the questions which are asked and who is asked to comment on the events.

It follows that the content and format of the news is a result of many decisions made by several media professionals and those they work with and that the news will thus reflect the biases of those who are involved in its creation.

‘The News is Socially Constructed’ = the news is a manufactured product, the result of decisions made by media professionals about what to include and how to present what is included.

This post presents a brief introduction to the factors which influence news content, covering news values, organisational routines, media owners and the background of journalists. It has primarily been written for students of A-level sociology, studying The Sociology of Media option, AQA specification.

News Values 

News Values are general guidelines which determine how newsworthy an event is. The more news values an event has, then the more prominence the event will be given in a news programme or a newspaper.

Examples of News Values include:

  • Extraordinariness – how unusual an event is. An event which is not routine and unexpected is more likely to be included in the news.
  • Threshold – the bigger and event the more likely it is to be included – e.g. more deaths are better.
  • Negativity – generally war, violence, death, tragedy, all are more newsworthy than happy events.
  • Unambiguity – the simpler, more black and white an event the more likely it is to be included in the news agenda
  • Personalisation – if a story can be linked to an individual, and a personal story made out of it, then it is more newsworthy.

Organisational or Bureaucratic routines

These are logistical factors which can limit what events are included as news items and include:

  • Financial costs
  • Deadlines
  • Time and Space
  • The audience
  • Journalistic ethics

Economic factors and ownership

Instrumentalist Marxists argue that owners can influence content, and a good example of this is the control Rupert Murdoch exerted over the reporting of the Iraq war in 2003 – he was for the war and his newspapers did not criticise it.

Advertising can also affect the news agenda – independent news companies are dependent on advertising revenue, so they are unlikely to report on issues which are critical of capitalism and economic growth.

There is a hierarchy of credibility – the news generally presents the views of the elite and wealthy first and then the radicals and critics in response, suggesting the elite view is the norm.

Most Journalists are middle class 

More than 50% of journalists were educated in private schools, and most of the rest come from middle class backgrounds.

This means they share a middle class ‘establishment’ view of the world and will see middle class issues as more signficant than working class interests, and/ or present the interests of the middle classes as being the interests of everyone.

 

 

The Marxist Perspective on the News

Marxists suggest the news agenda is heavily interests by those with power in capitalist societies and that the content of the news reflects the worldview and interests of the elite and middle classes.

Those working for mainstream news media may claim that the news they construct is objective and unbiased, but this is a myth according to Marxists, and the news primarily serves to legitimate capitalism and maintain the status quo.

This post is really an application of a combination of Instrumentalist Marxist Theory and Neo-Marxist (‘hegemonic’) theory.

Owners influence content

Owners may not be able to shape the day to day content of the news, especially live 24 hour news, but they can shape the broader context by setting the policies of their companies and influencing the general approach to selecting and editing news.

Owners the power to hire and fire Chief Executive Officers and other high-ranking officials, and they can exercise direct control over such decisions because they do not have to be made that often.

According to Marxist theory, owners will generally appoint senior officials who share their ideology and then lower ranking media professionals will avoid publishing content that might annoy them for fear of their jobs.

The news agenda legitimates a capitalist, neoliberal view of the world

News companies rely on advertisers for their income and so it should be no surprise that the news does not generally critique the capitalist system, in fact it does quite the opposite.

Most news programmes and papers have large sections devoted to business news and economics, where Corporate leaders and business experts are generally deferred to and are favourably presented.

These sections of the news rarely challenge the concept of economic growth, it is taken for granted as a universal ‘good’, and elsewhere the news rarely focuses on issues of poverty and inequality.

The Hierarchy of credibility

Journalists rank people in elite and professional positions as being more credible sources of authority than those lower down the social class order.

Heads of companies, government officials, the police and academic experts are all more likely to be invited to comment on news items than those from pressure groups, less popular political parties, or just ordinary members of the general public.

The elite thus end up becoming the ‘primary definers’ of the news agenda.

The news often reports on what such people think of events, rather than the events themselves, so we end up with an elite/ middle class frame of the world through the news.

The social class class background of journalists

GUMG argue that media professional tend to side with the elite because they share a middle class background with them, and thus a worldview.

News items thus tend to represent the elite and middle classes more favourably than the working classes.

Fiske (1987) for example found that news reports on industrial disputes tended to report on managers as ‘asking’ whereas trades unionists tended to reported as ‘making demands’, presenting the former as more reasonable.

Sources 

Modified from…

  • Ken Browne (2016) Sociology for AQA Volume 2
  • Chapman (2016) Sociology AQQ A-Level Year 2

Organisational Routines and News Content

Organisational routines may affect what items are selected for presentation in the news. These include factors such as financial costs, time and space available, deadlines, immediacy and accuracy, the audience and journalistic ethics.

Organisational routines are sometimes known as bureaucratic routines.

This post has been written primarily for A-level sociology students studying the media option within the sociology of the media.

Financial costs

News gathering can be an expensive business, and investigative journalism and overseas reporting are two of the most expensive types of news to produce, because they former involves sustained long-term investigation and the later involves overseas expenses.

Financial pressures have led to news companies changing the type of news they produced, with two major consequences:

Firstly, investigative journalism has declined, and that which remains has become more about digging up dirt on celebrities rather than in-depth exposés on corrupt politicians or corporations.

Secondly, the news has become more about infotainment – that is entertainment has become increasingly important as a factor in the selection of news items. Entertaining items achieve larger audiences which means more advertising revenue and more income.

Even the BBC isn’t immune from these pressures. OFCOM recently said of BBC News that it is ‘More Madonna than Mugabe’.

Time and space available

News has to be tailored to fit the time and space available in the newspaper or on the television show.

For example, A typical 6 O clock BBC news show consist of around 15 items in 25 minutes, usually with each item taking up 5 minutes or less. If an item can’t be covered in less than 5 minutes, it is more likely that it will not be included in the news agenda.

These small time slots also limit the number of perspectives which can be given on a news item – often restraining commentary to 2 people, and contributing to biased Agenda Setting (according to Neo-Marxists)

Longer news programmes allow for more in-depth coverage of news items.

Deadlines

This only really affects newspapers: the deadline for something to reach tomorrow’s newspaper is around 10PM the previous evening.

Immediacy and Accuracy

An item is more likely to be included in the news if it can be accompanied by live footage and if relevant people can be found to comment on the issue or offer soundbites.

The audience

The content of the news may change because of the perceived characteristics of the audience.

For example The Sun is aimed at less well educated people while The Guardian is aimed at people with a higher level of education.

The content of day time news may change to reflect the interests of stay at home parents.

Journalistic ethics

Ethics should constrain the type of news which is reported, and the way in which news is reported.

All UK newspapers sign up to the Press Complaints Commission’s voluntary code of conduct which stipulates that journalists should avoid publishing inaccurate information and misrepresenting people and should respect people’s privacy and dignity.

However, there is some evidence that journalists do not always act ethically. For example, the News of the World phone hacking scandal in the early 2000s – the paper hacked various celebrities and royals’ phones as well as those of victims of the July 2005 London bombings.

The Leveson report (2012) found that news stories frequently relied on misrepresentation and embellishment, and it seems that press watchdogs have little power to enforce journalistic ethics today.

 

Using contemporary examples to evaluate for theory and methods

A level sociology students should be looking to using contemporary examples and case studies to illustrate points and evaluate theories whenever possible. In the exams, the use of contemporary evidence is something examiners look for and reward.

Below are a few examples of some recent events in the news which are relevant to the theory and methods aspects of sociology

All of the above took place in either 2019 or 2018! 

Using contemporary examples to evaluate within the sociology of families and households

A level sociology students should be looking to using contemporary examples and case studies to illustrate points and evaluate theories whenever possible. In the exams, the use of contemporary evidence is something examiners look for and reward.

Below are a few examples of some recent events in the news which are relevant to the sociology of families and households. You’ll need to read the items for more depth on how to apply them.

All of the above took place in either 2019 or 2018! 

Using contemporary examples to evaluate the sociology of crime and deviance

A level sociology students should be looking to using contemporary examples and case studies to illustrate points and evaluate theories whenever possible. In the exams, the use of contemporary evidence is something examiners look for and reward.

Below are a few examples of some recent events in the news which are relevant to the sociology of crime and deviance. You’ll need to read the items for more depth on how to apply them.

All of the above took place in either 2019 or 2018! 

Using contemporary examples to evaluate within the sociology of education

A level sociology students should be looking to using contemporary examples and case studies to illustrate points and evaluate theories whenever possible. In the exams, the use of contemporary evidence is something examiners look for and reward.

Below are a few examples of some recent events in the news which are relevant to the sociology of education, you’ll need to read the items for more depth on how to apply them.

All of the above took place in either 2019 or 2018! 

Blue Monday

‘Blue Monday’ is apparently the most ‘depressing’ day of the year…

Blue Monday 2019.png

Accept it’s not.

It’s actually the day of the year on which people are most likely to book a holiday, based on the following formula:

Blue Monday.png

A psychologist called Cliff Arnall came up with the formula in 2005. He developed it on behalf Travel (a now defunct media channel), who wanted to know what motivated people to book a summer holiday, and the bits of the formula are (I think) supposed to represent those variables.

Industry stats suggest that late January is the period when people are most likely to book a holiday (how far this has been reinforced by the Blue Monday marketing phenomenon is hard to say), so Arnall’s variables may be valid. I’ve no idea how he came up with either them or the formula, but the idea behind it doesn’t appear to have been to calculate the most ‘depressing’ day of the year.

However, somehow the media have come up with the concept of ‘Blue Monday’, and now the third Monday in January is, in the public’s imagination, the day of the year which is the most ‘depressing’.

Intuitively this makes sense: debt, darkness, post-Christmas, all things we might think make it more likely that we will be miserable.

However, there is no actual evidence to back up the claim that Blue Monday is the most ‘depressing’ day of the year.

There are actually two ‘scientific’ sources we can use to see how happy people are: The Office for National Statistics Wellbeing Survey and the Global Happiness Survey. Both are worth checking out, but the problem is neither of them (as far as I’m aware) collect happiness data on a daily basis. They simply don’t drill down into that level of granularity.

People have used social media sentiment analysis to look at how mood varies day to day, but this doesn’t back up the concept of Blue Monday… if anything early spring seems to be the period when people are the least happy.

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There’s a further problem, the official view of the mental health charity MIND, that Blue Monday trivializes depression which tends to be a long-term mental health condition which doesn’t simply worsen as we move from Christmas into January and then gradually lift as we get further towards spring.

In the end it must be remembered that ‘Blue Monday’ is actually a marketing tool, designed to make us buy crap we don’t need in order to ‘lift our moods’, which aren’t necessarily lower in January at all!

And as a result, we get a raft of newspaper articles telling us how to ‘beat Blue Monday’, some of which suggest we should ‘book a holiday’ which is where the whole concept started after all!

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Relevance to A level sociology 

Firstly the concept of Blue Monday illustrates the need to think critically – this is a great example of a concept which is based on completely invalid measurements. It simply has no validity, so the only question you can ask is ‘why does it exist’, rather than ‘why are people more miserable in late January (they are not, according to the evidence!).

This is possible support for the Marxist theory of society – of ideological control through the media: Blue Monday appears to be a media fabrication designed to get us to buy more stuff.

Selected sources 

Ben Goldacre – on why Blue Science is Bad Science

 

Sociological Perspectives on the Environment Protests in London

Thousands of protestors have been engaging in various acts of civil disobedience to protest the British government’s lack of action over climate change.

The week’s protests culminated in up to 6000 people blocking bridges causing significant traffic disruption as well as some of them gluing their hands to the department of the environment’s building.

The protestors say they are doing this because they’ve tried everything else to get the government to take effective action on climate change, but to no avail, and this seems to be something of a last resort!

To find out more you can read this news article here.

Relevance to A-level sociology 

The people who took part in these protests will almost certainly identify themselves as ‘global citizens’ taking part in a global social movement to being about positive social change. It’s a nice illustration of people engaging in life-Politics (Anthony Giddens’ concept) – it’s highly likely that if you’re committed enough to engage in this level of civil disobedience for the sake of the planet, then you probably live your life in an environmentally friendly way.

These protests and the people who took part in them are most definitely not ‘postmodern‘ – they clearly believe in ‘the truth’ of climate change as outlined by the United Nations, so it’s a nice reminder that not everything about British society is ‘post modern’, this is very much more ‘late modern’ – people coming together to effect what they perceive as positive social change.

It’s also a good example of Giddens’ theory that in the context of globalisation, nation states are too small to solve big problems such as climate change – and this is possibly why so many governments have been ‘dragging their feet’ over taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions…. they can use the fact that ‘they are just one nation among 200’ to not do anything.

Of course, it’s also a straightforward example of positive cultural (and kind of political) globalisation.

If you’re an optimist you could interpret these events through a Functionalist lens – it’s possible that these people are showing us the ‘morality of the future’ – they actually identify explicitly with the Civil Rights activists of the 1960s.

Finally, I think this is an example of secondary green crime…. a crime (the public order offences which led to several arrests) emerging out of a conflict over the environment. it may not be because this concept is not explained very clearly in the A-level text books!