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date: 29 May 2017

Journalism and Explaining News Content

Summary and Keywords

Three models are presented to explain variation in news content. In the first model the explanation is based on the individual journalist, in the second model on the professional journalist, and in the third model on the organized journalist. The individual journalist model focuses on how the background and values of individual journalists may impact their journalistic products; the professional journalist model considers the professional values and work norms that apply across individual journalists and across news organizations; the organized journalist model looks at how the organization within which journalists work may affect news content.

Keywords: news content, journalists, news organizations, media institution

News content is often heatedly debated. Is the news coverage politically balanced? Does it stereotype certain groups in society? Do some issues receive more coverage than others? Are news stories too negative? These debates are based on the assumption that news content has effects on individual citizens as well as society at large. Without the assumption of such effects, the debate on news content would be met—and rightly so—with a shrug of the shoulders.

Therefore, journalism and communication research has intensely studied whether news content affects individual citizens or society at large. For instance does the news increase the citizens’ knowledge about society and politics? Does it affect their political views and attitudes or their behavior, e.g., their intention to vote at elections or their inclination to participate in political debates? At the societal level, does the news affect politicians’ agendas? Does it keep the powers that be on the straight and narrow because they know that journalists scrutinize their actions? Or are political parties today forced to adapt their messages to the logic of the media to get their names and faces into the news? The research tradition that studies the effects of the news, that is, the relationship between news content and its possible effects, is often labeled political communication. This is illustrated at the right side of Figure 1 by the arrows going from news content to micro and macro effects.

Journalism and Explaining News ContentClick to view larger

Figure 1. The interaction between news and society.

In this tradition, variation in news content is interesting in so far as it creates different effects on citizens, decision makers, and society. Often it has stopped short of answering the question: What explains the variations in news content in the first place? For instance, what explains that certain topics and politicians rather than others are covered in the news? Such explanations are crucial to understanding the whole chain, from news production, to news content, and finally to the potential effects on citizens, decision makers, and society. As illustrated in Figure 1, the antecedents of news content may be found in the environments of the news production system (the left column in Figure 1). New technologies, such as the emergence of radio, TV, and the Internet, have affected news production and news content. Political decisions to regulate the media or to support public service broadcasting create variations in news production and news content across countries, and the power balance between political actors in a society determines who appears in and which frames dominate the news. The antecedents of news content may also be found in the news production system itself (the second column in Figure 1). For instance, tabloid media favor news values that differ from those of other media outlets, and the news content of a media outlet with a specific political leaning differs from the news content of media outlets with different leanings.

Against this backdrop, this article examines how variations in news content can systematically be explained, focusing on factors that are closely related to the news production process. For this purpose we present three models, the individual journalist, the professional journalist, and the organized journalist. Individually and combined, the models offer systematic explanations for variations in content.

Journalism Studies as Research Tradition

Mass communication research has traditionally been dominated by studies of media content and its effects (e.g., Shoemaker & Reese, 2014). In this line of research features of news content (the center of Figure 1) are the independent variables, and the effects (right side of Figure 1) are the dependent variables. This research agenda emerged after World War I as an endeavor to understand mass-mediatized war propaganda. At the time, the media appeared to have an immediate and powerful effect on the audience. During one of the first movie presentations in New York at the start of the previous century, moviegoers rushed to the screen to interfere in the plot. It was not until later that they learned to distinguish between the filmic and the real world. In 1938, Orson Welles’s narrated radio drama The War of the Worlds had the same effect, as many listeners were convinced that Earth was being invaded by space aliens (Laughey, 2007, pp. 16–19). However, communications research had difficulties documenting these direct and powerful media effects. In 1940, Austrian-born Paul F. Lazarsfeld conducted his Erie County study. Every month for six months, a research group conducted more than 600 interviews with citizens in Erie Country, Ohio, to examine the media’s influence on voting in the state of Ohio at the presidential election. The study showed that only 54 out of all respondents in the panel changed candidates, and only a very small share of these shifts could be linked to media content. Lazarsfeld and several of his colleagues, who conducted similar studies, concluded that the media only have a very small effect on how citizens vote (Klapper, 1960). This conclusion was later modified by research in political communication.

The researchers in this early research tradition in the study of media effects tended to accept media messages as something given and were only modestly interested in how the messages were created (Löffelholz & Weaver, 2008, p. 4). A marked exception was American Walter Lippmann, who in 1922, published the book Public Opinion (Lippmann, 1922). In the chapter “The World Outside and the Pictures In Our Heads,” Lippmann compared what we know today as “real world indicators,” that is. different measures for “facts,” with public perceptions of various topics, and he discussed the media’s role as an intermediary between two elements: facts and perceptions. He described the media metaphorically as a spotlight that lights up some parts of the world but leaves others in the dark. The result is a media-constructed reality. Lippmann thus pointed towards another type of research agenda, which finds it important to also examine how media messages are constructed.

While research in media effects flourished in the wake of Lazarsfeld and colleagues’ studies, Lippmann’s attempts to shed light on journalists’ selection and production processes did not materialize in a research agenda right away. The first well-known empirical study of these processes was David Manning White’s article “The ‘gate-keeper’: A case study in the selection of news,” published in 1950. White examined why a telegram editor from a morning newspaper chose certain stories and rejected others, and he found that the individual journalist in relation to the printed newspaper functioned as a “gatekeeper,” who decided which events made it through the gate and became news and which did not. White concluded that the editor’s choices were highly subjective, which indicated that the individual journalist had a large influence on the construction of the media agenda. Only a few years later, White’s assessment of the gatekeeping function was problematized when communications scholar Warren Breed (1955) found that the individual journalist learns to follow the work policy for newsrooms as defined by owners and superiors, and thus works under certain constraints.

These few classic studies did not immediately inspire a flood of empirical studies of journalistic work, but they established the individual journalist as an interesting research topic. In the early 1970s, John W. C. Johnstone and colleagues (1972–1973) again put focus on the background and professional values of journalists when they conducted a national questionnaire survey among a representative sample of American journalists. Their approach made it possible to draw up a descriptive profile of American journalists and draw conclusions about their professional values and working conditions. David H. Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit (1986, 1996; Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes, & Wilhoit, 2007) repeated these surveys at 10-year intervals. Their survey questions were later used in questionnaires for national surveys of journalists in other countries (cf. Weaver & Wu, 1998).

Systematic surveys of representative samples of journalists allow us to map their characteristics, background, views, convictions, and perceptions, and are highly valuable, but this mapping has a tendency to become descriptive rather than explanatory (Löffelholz & Weaver, 2008, p. 7). Also, such surveys are more or less explicitly based on an assumption that journalists’ characteristics, values, and convictions have a significant influence on the news content they produce and thus reinforce an individual focus in the news production studies.

Using another approach, Breed finds that journalists’ behavior is determined largely by the organizational structure within which they work; thus, there will be variation in news content across news organizations, such as the different news organizations in the second column of Figure 1. Others argue that the behavior is so similar across organizations that journalism constitutes an institution, that is, journalism as a profession has developed behavior-modifying norms and standards that apply across specific news organizations, as illustrated by the media institution in the second column of Figure 1 (e.g., Gans, 1979; Tuchman, 1978; Cook, 1998; Sparrow, 1999).

Research focusing on the antecedents of news, that is, making the news content at the center of Figure 1 the dependent variable, and the antecedent factors at the left of Figure 1 the independent variables, is often called journalism studies or media sociology.

Three Models

Drawing on the literature that theorizes and studies news production and thus explanations for news content, we identify three ideal typical models for how journalists and journalistic practice determine the journalistic product.

Model 1: The Individual Journalist

White’s early study has been criticized for focusing narrowly on the individual journalist as a gatekeeper and for interpreting choices as based on personal subjectivity (e.g., Reese & Ballinger, 2001). However, it set off a tradition of studying individual journalists and their (subjective) choices.

The model of the individual journalist assumes that the personal baggage of values and opinions that journalists always carry with them will affect their choices in the news production process. The key empirical contention in this perspective is that journalists’ mentality and behavior are influenced by their social background (labeled social biography in Figure 1), and that mentality and behavior affect their journalistic output (cf. Lægreid & Olsen, 1978).

The theory is based on the assumption that life-long socialization, for example through upbringing (class), gender, religion, ethnicity, education, or professional experience, is crucial for personal views and behavior. The individual journalist’s value perceptions, situational perceptions, social identification, and behavioral patterns are therefore influenced by social background and experience. Consequently, so is the journalistic output, since journalists are not machines controlled by employers or the journalistic profession. On the contrary, when they select material, sources, frames, etc., journalists often exercise discretion, which is precisely influenced by their personal baggage of attitudes. A well-known example of this type of argument is the idea that journalists’ personal political leaning is reflected in news coverage, and as journalists generally place themselves slightly left-of-center when asked about their political standpoint, this would lead to a leftish or liberal bias in the news (e.g., Lichter et al., 1990). The argument about left-leaning journalists producing left-leaning biases in news content can be found in the public debate across different countries (Hopmann et al., 2012), even if it receives limited empirical support (e.g., D’Alessio & Allen, 2000; Helfer & Van Aelst, 2016; Patterson & Donsbach, 1996).

The notion that journalists’ social biographies affect their journalistic output is typically accompanied by a normative demand that the journalistic profession should mirror or represent the population in terms of social status, gender, ethnicity, (political) views, etc. The demand, for instance, for equal gender representation among journalists may be based on an equity argument: It is not fair that women do not have the same opportunities as men to fill certain journalistic positions. Or it may be based on a representation argument: Due to their special social biography, women will focus on different issues or frame their stories differently than men, and therefore the gender representation should be more equal and reflect the gender composition in the population. A similar argumentation is advanced today regarding ethnicity and diversity in journalism (see, e.g., Deuze, 2002a; Djerf-Pierre, 2007).

The argument is that a change in recruitment will affect journalistic choices on what to cover and how to cover it, and that more diversity in the journalistic work force will lead to more diversity in news content. According to this model, we should ask where journalists come from, what experiences they have, and what views they have if we want to understand how they work and what kind of news content they produce.

Research on the individual journalists’ background characteristics and their professional values is extensive—even to the point where mass communication research has been accused of being biased towards the individual (Shoemaker & Reese, 2014). In its attempt to explain media content, it focuses disproportionately on micro-level explanations, that is. explanations based on the individual journalist. Among the many potential causes of this focus are culture, method, and theory. As far as culture, the individual is valued over the group in the country that spearheaded the development and practice of mass communication research, namely the United States. The methodological cause is related to the predilection for questionnaires, which typically implies that individuals become the analytical unit in statistical measures. One reason is that this method provides a high degree of reliability and replicability, that is, the studies can be repeated by other researchers. A second reason is that surveys provide easier access to the object of inquiry, namely the journalistic selection processes. In comparison, observational studies, which are better suited for examining structures than questionnaire surveys, require access to the editorial office (Löffelholz & Weaver, 2008). The theoretical explanation for the individual-level bias is related to methods. We find it easier to theorize about aspects we can measure; consequently, theories focus excessively on psychological behavioral explanations at the micro level at the expense of structural explanations. However, studies show that structures are an important foundation for journalistic work and news selection. In a study of the difference between journalists’ news values—what they normatively think should be selected for news content—and news selection—what is actually selected for news content, Strömbäck et al. (2012) show that journalists find that in actual news selection relevance and societal impact is not emphasized enough, whereas organizational demands such as production expenses, planned events, and exclusiveness are over-emphasized. Other studies confirm that individual journalists are not free-floating individuals who can cover whatever they want in whatever way they please. On the contrary, they are embedded in structures that need to be included to understand why journalistic products look the way they do (e.g., Shoemaker & Reese, 2014; Gans, 1979; Deuze, 2002b; Löffelholz & Weaver, 2008; Preston, 2009; Tuchmann, 1978).

Model 2: The Professional Journalist

The notion that journalists make subjective choices about news content based on their social biography and personal views is countered by the notion of professional journalists. In this model, journalists still have autonomy and discretion in the news production process, but choices are based on professional norms for good journalism rather than subjective beliefs. This is particularly true because one of the strongest professional norms in journalism is objectivity (or fairness, impartiality, or balance, depending on which label journalists and scholars have been most comfortable with through the years). The adherence to this norm is supposed to eliminate possible subjective influences, including journalists’ backgrounds, beliefs, and predispositions. This model is illustrated by the media institution (second column in Figure 1), according to which journalists’ professional values and work norms apply across individual journalists and across news organizations.

Despite significant variations across countries and media systems, the professional norms emerged in many Western countries in the first half of the 20th century, when many news organizations were forced to loosen their close ties to the political parties and finance their newspaper operations commercially via subscriptions, single copy sales, and advertising (Hallin & Mancini, 2004). For commercially financed media, conquering market shares outside the individual party’s constituency was crucial, and they had to supply a product—news—that was in demand in a segment of the public with spending power. This product was politically balanced and intended to be objective news coverage, which had the added advantage that it did not offend potential advertisers. To reassure the public that it was, in fact, buying balanced and objective news coverage, journalists and their news organizations developed a series of professional values and new routines, which are followed by all news organizations regardless of ownership and regardless of the partisan line expressed in the dedicated op-ed columns (editorials, comments, features, letters to the editor, etc.) (e.g., Chalaby, 1998; Tumber & Prentoulis, 2005). News and views were kept apart. Journalism gradually became a profession, characterized by professional principles, norms, and standards for quality work, and by a professional ethic, which journalists are taught and socialized into during their education and in news organizations. Journalism is not a standardized job, and news is not a standardized entity that can be produced at an assembly line. Highly unpredictable conditions and frequent swift decisions make it unsuitable for bureaucratic control (Soloski, 1989, p. 208). Rather, to prevent a slow and ineffective work process with managerial involvement in every decision, journalists enjoy a certain degree of autonomy and discretion. However, it is important that this discretion is professional and not influenced by the journalists’ own subjective values. This is precisely where the professional norms and standards become relevant. They guide the journalistic production across the individual news organizations, and they are observed by individual journalists to prevent their personal political leanings from affecting their journalistic output. When such principles, rules, norms, and standards guide the behavior of individuals or organizations, they constitute what the social sciences call an institution, in this case a news institution (cf. column two in Figure 1) (Cook, 1998).

One example of how professional norms translate into content is the study of incumbency bonus, that is, that political actors in powerful positions receive more coverage than those in less powerful positions (e.g., Hopmann, de Vreese, & Albæk, 2011; Semetko, 1996; van Dalen, 2012). Other studies show how news coverage is indexed according to the range and distribution of debate among political elites. Journalists’ professional norm for source selection results in a preference for official sources and their frames and interpretations (e.g., Bennett, Lawrence, & Livingston, 2006; Hallin, 1986). The professional norms for news selection also favor negative stories over positive ones (e.g., Baum & Groeling, 2010; Elmelund-Præstekær & Svensson, 2014).

Model 3: The Organized Journalist

Unlike other professions, such as doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers, who often run their own business and deal with individual clients or patients, journalists are dependent on the organization they work for to exercise their profession. Journalists do not interact directly with individual clients, but rely on news organizations for access to the public they are bound to serve according to their professional ideology (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 35). This dependence challenges the journalists’ autonomy and their ability to control their own work (Daniels, 1973, p. 39; Reese, 2001, p. 175).

This is the point of departure of the third model: the organized journalist. It questions the official image of journalism as guided by professional norms and instead explains journalistic output based on dominant views, work routines, control mechanisms, etc. at the individual work place (cf. column two in Figure 1 with several different media companies and newsrooms). According to the model, a local culture emerges in all organizations—including news organizations—that affects the employees and how they do their job. For instance, while some media organizations pursue tabloid journalism emphasizing sensationalism and personalized stories in order to trigger emotional responses from the audience (e.g., Örnebring & Jönsson, 2004; Sparks & Tulloch, 2000), other media organizations report the news in a more prosaic style. A culture gradually emerges with influence from, for instance, the news organization’s owner and leadership. The culture reflects the organization’s mission, the idea of who constitutes its competitors, its norms for quality work, etc. The organization makes sure that individual employees adhere to the group’s perception of the news organization’s interest through recruitment and through socialization, disciplining, and control (cf. Lægreid & Olsen, 1978).

First, the news organization may ensure that employees adhere to its values through recruitment. Identification with and loyalty to the news organization may be emphasized already when new employees are hired. In connection with promotion in the hierarchy, the employees’ integration in terms of dominant views, perceptions, and norms in the organization will be emphasized. After recruitment, three mechanisms affect the journalists’ behavior.

The first of these mechanisms for ensuring employee loyalty is socialization. Socialization is genuine internalization of norms and views. Socialization occurs throughout our lives, and also in the news organization in which the journalist is currently employed.

The second mechanism is discipline. Disciplining occurs when journalists learn the norms for good behavior that exist in a news organization and the rewards and sanctions associated with these norms. Rewards may include being assigned the good, interesting stories (and getting them on the front page), merit-based bonuses, and opportunities for promotion; sanctions represent the opposite. All news organizations have more or less effective disciplining systems, which force a specific behavior on the journalist in minor and major ways. Thus, a journalist may personally distance himself from both content and form of his output; that is, he has not internalized the values behind the new organization’s journalism, but he sheds his own values when he enters his place of employment and makes his journalistic products the expected way in the news organization because he is disciplined to do that.

Finally, the news organizations may use control to ensure that employees act according to its values. The news organizations control their employees in the form of directives, orders, and commands. Likewise, journalistic decisions are controlled by superiors, such as an editor. Thus, while journalists are disciplined through a post hoc rewards and sanctions system, control is exercised immediately in the news making process.

Socialization is the most effective adjustment mechanism; control is the least effective. When we look at journalistic products, it is difficult, of course, to determine whether the journalists were motivated by one or the other in specific journalistic choices. In such a system, the journalists’ social biography in the form of social background, education, and previous work experience will mean less than the biography they have accumulated at the current place of employment.

Public and scientific debates about an organization’s influence on news content often revolve around news organizations’ political sympathies and antipathies and whether these affect the news content (e.g., Sigelman, 1973). In the United States, the debate has been revived after the emergence of FOX News and MSNBC on the broadcast market, but the political leaning of the media is also continuously debated in many other countries (Hopmann, Van Aelst, & Legnante, 2012; Stroud, 2011). When political actors or political views of the audience influence media organizations it is called political parallelism, and research has found substantial variation in political parallelism across countries. However, even in countries with strong professionalism norms among journalists and low political parallelism, the political stance of the news organization potentially influences news coverage, for example in reporting presidential approval ratings (Groeling, 2008). Other studies show that opinions of the news organization expressed in editorials and other opinion pieces potentially rub off on the news coverage (e.g., Brandenburg, 2006; Jandura & Großmann, 2003; Kahn & Kenney, 2002).

In recent decades, another organizational factor has gained increasing attention in journalism research and in the professional and public debate about journalism: Are journalists pressured to generate content that maximizes sales and simultaneously goes against their journalistic norms and standards? Media are increasingly seen as businesses that have to generate profit rather than as public service organizations (e.g., McManus, 2009); even in media organizations with imposed public service obligations, audience ratings have gradually become a more important parameter for success (e.g., Bardoel & d’Haenens, 2008; Born, 2003; Brants & van Praag, 2006). A spectacular example of how this may affect journalism is the scandal-ridden British tabloid newspaper News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s worldwide media empire, which closed down in 2011, after 168 years in print, when it was revealed that it had been engaged in ongoing illegal phone hacking. Commercialization is claimed to create a perception of readers, listeners, and viewers as customers rather than citizens in a democracy (Entman, 1989, pp. 49–50). Indeed journalists who work for media in a highly competitive market are likely to experience that they have less freedom in their news organization to do their job in accordance with their professional journalistic values than journalists who work for media in a less competitive market (Skovsgaard, 2014).

With the rise of the Internet and digital journalism, editors and journalists can follow aggregated audience measures in real time. In news organizations focused on getting high audience figures for economic benefits, this affects news selection (Vu, 2014). This is particularly important since the audience tends to choose more soft news stories than journalists (Boczkowski & Mitchelstein, 2010). This real time audience orientation feeds into the argument that news coverage based on attracting large audiences increasingly focuses on infotainment, tabloid stories, and process rather than substance. Brants and van Praag (2006) describe the development of the Dutch media system since the 1950s in three stages: originally, widespread political parallelism and a media world controlled by a political logic; from the mid-1950s and up to approximately 1990, a focus on servicing the public and on journalistic professional norms; and today, increasing control by a media logic that aims to produce journalism that attracts customers.

Commercialization may also affect the content even if a strategy to adapt the news to the customers cannot be detected. It may happen when media owners, in a quest to maximize profits, streamline work routines or reduce staff. This means less time and fewer journalists to conduct the necessary research; the individual employee has to master multiple media platforms and perform functions that were earlier handled by specialists; the number of foreign correspondents is reduced, etc. The overall result may be that journalists no longer feel that their news organization is providing the conditions they require to fulfill their professional norms. Likewise, the many journalists who work independently, as freelancers, are not socialized on a daily basis into an organizational culture by their peers or their superiors.

Competing or Complementary Models?

In the public—and at times in the academic debate—the three models above appear to be competing: If one is true, the others are false. When right-of-center commentators argue that journalists personally vote to the left of center and that their personal left-leaning views are reflected in their journalistic output, they usually subscribe exclusively to the individual journalist model. When American media critic Noam Chomsky or media sociologists who adhere to the political economy approach accuse the media of having a bourgeois bias, they subscribe to the model the organized journalist. And when the media and journalists’ unions counter such criticism from both sides of the political spectrum and defend journalism as professional and unbiased, they subscribe to the professional journalist model.

However, the models should rather be seen as complementary, that is, as supplementing each other. The interesting point in this perspective is not whether one model is completely explanatory at the cost of the others, but rather the extent to which the individual models explain (some of) the variations in journalistic content. As demonstrated, some studies find explanations for variations in news content at the individual level, some at the organizational level, and some at the professional or institutional level.

In their experimental study, Patterson and Donsbach (1996) showed that the individual journalist’s political attitudes had an impact on their news decisions but that it was minor, and the authors concluded that “political partisanship tends to shade the news rather than coloring it deeply. Partisanship is a measurable but not a robust influence on journalists’ news decisions” (1996, p. 463).

This is in line with Shoemaker, Eichholz, Kim, and Wrigley (2001), who test how individual characteristics of journalists influence news decisions on congressional bills. They conclude that news decisions are explained by editors’ assessment of a bill’s newsworthiness rather than by characteristics of the individual journalist, that is, the organizational or institutional level is more important than the individual level. In a comprehensive study of election news coverage in Danish television over a 14-year period, Albæk, Hopmann and de Vreese (2010) test the three models and find substantial support for the professional model. These studies explicitly test different levels of influence against each other and show that, even though the models and levels described above might be complimentary, the organizational and professional models have stronger explanatory power than the individual model.

This does not imply that journalists are cultural robots whose actions are completely dictated and defined by surrounding structures. However, it means that the organization and the profession that the individual journalist is socialized into constrain and structure many content decisions that the journalist makes (see Shoemaker & Reese, 2014; Preston, 2009).

When, how and under which conditions the individual, the organizational, and the professional factors influence content are empirical questions, and the merit of the models presented above is that they can be utilized to generate explicit expectations and hypotheses for these empirical studies. Of course, variations in professional values and journalists’ possibilities to comply with them in practice may be due partly to the journalists’ different, personal biographies, partly to the context within which they work, including the economic, political, and cultural environments of journalists and media (cf. first column in Figure 1). Thus, how these contextual factors are structured in different countries at different times affects how important individual characteristics of journalists, characteristics of news organizations, and professional norms and ideals are for news content.

Context and Variation

Working conditions for journalists differ considerably across countries and over time, which potentially causes variation in journalists’ values and the content they produce. The structure of the media market, state intervention, the political influence on the media organizations, and the level of professionalization vary across countries. Based on variation on these dimensions, Hallin and Mancini (2004) analyzed how different media systems in 18 Western countries developed during the 20th century, and they classified three distinct media systems. Despite intense debate about and recent updates to the classifications (e.g., Norris, 2009) of media systems with four models rather than three (Brüggemann, Engesser, Büchel, Humbricht, & Castro, 2014), Hallin and Mancini’s book has become a reference point for comparative media research.

Hallin and Mancini’s argument is that media institutions both reflect and influence the society in which they operate. Mass media has evolved from being a tool other political and societal actors could use to promote their own interests to being an independent actor that influences and changes the society in which it functions (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 8). Hallin and Mancini identify and distinguish between three basic models for the relation between media and political systems. In the Mediterranean polarized-pluralistic media model, a political parallelism exists for both the printed and the electronic media—that is, the media’s political leanings are parallel to those of the political parties. This is not the case in the democratic-corporative media model in Northern Europe, or in the Anglo-Saxon liberal media model.

They do not link these different models to specific content characteristics, but their argument implies that variations in media system characteristics over time and across countries lead to variations in news content. This notion is supported by comparative research on the style of political news across six countries (the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy) over several decades, which showed that though analysis, interpretation, and popularization have generally been on the rise, the level of these stylistic factors was different across countries, and no sign of convergence was present (Esser & Umbricht, 2014). This indicates a transformation of the way the objectivity norm is operationalized and implemented over time, but also that there are significant differences between journalists in different countries in regard to the importance and the operationalization of the objectivity norm based on the journalistic traditions and culture in these countries.

Another study indicates how similar professional journalistic values may translate into different news content across countries depending on the nature of political institutions. Even though journalists all over the world subscribe to the norm of delivering balanced political news (Weaver & Willnat, 2012), the balance manifests itself in different ways across countries depending of the newsworthiness of political institutions. Since persons with political power are more interesting to journalists than persons without, parliaments are less visible and governments more visible in countries where the government has a clear parliamentary majority behind it than in countries where minority governments have to negotiate with opposition parties to find a majority (van Dalen, 2012).

Technological developments also have the potential to change conditions for news production and news content. In another comparative study of political news, Umbricht and Esser find that a popularized reporting style increased over time, but in particular in the 1960s and 1970s, parallel to the spread of television (2016, p. 112). This indicates that the reporting style in newspapers is affected by the introduction and proliferation of television on the media market. The authors also show that in Germany the popularized style has been at a consistently low level and even decreased over time, which indicates that technological developments do not have a deterministic effect but interact with the journalistic culture in a country. The rise of the Internet and the potential to respond immediately to real time audience metrics have had an effect on news decisions (Vu, 2014). Based on a comparison of offline and online newspapers across three countries, Benson et al. (2012) find that online news tends to be lighter and more “sensationalistic,” as well as more deliberative in focus than its offline equivalent. However, results from Denmark contradict several of the general trends, which leads the authors to conclude that even though developments caused by technological change cannot be stopped, changes in the content are shaped by the preexisting structures in the media system as well as the socio-historical context. In a recent study, variations in news content, such as negativity, balance, personalization, game framing, and infotainment in 16 democracies were explained by looking at a combination of explanations located at the individual, the routine, the organizational, institutional, and systemic levels (De Vreese, Esser, & Hopmann, 2016).

In sum, it is clear that contextual factors that vary over time and across countries or media systems are important for how the configuration of influences from the individual, organizational, and professional model impacts news content. For instance, in the times when the political parties dominated the media market in most countries, the organizational model was much more important for explaining news content than the professional model. Along with the development of a journalistic profession with specific ideals, norms, and routines in many Western countries, the professional model has gained explanatory power without eliminating the other models. Contextual factors such as regulations, the media market, the political system, and technological developments also shape the way professional norms are interpreted and operationalized, which in turn affects news content. Thus, when we seek explanations for variations in news content, we have to carefully consider how the contextual factors interact with the three models presented above.

Summing Up

The relationship between journalism and news content has long been the object of intense public debate and has been scrutinized in academic research, often based on a concern about effects. The three models summarize the various approaches to the study of journalism and news content that have developed over the years. The models should be considered complementary rather than mutually exclusive. We also argue that the context in which journalism produces news content must be taken into consideration, as it varies across countries and over time, resulting in variation in news content.


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