Reflections on McChesney: Problematics of Media Self-Regulation

FULL DISCLOSURE: I worked as a mainstream news reporter between 2003 and 2012.

News media goes where many cannot or will not. It infiltrates the halls of power, the courtrooms, protest sites, war zones and scenes of tragedy. It is, unquestionably, the source of much of the information used to inform and shape society. Its role is crucial. However, I contend that codes of professional journalism ethics, which purport to produce a balanced, non-biased mirroring of the facts, fail both as an adequate industry regulator and as a check on the powerful.  To explore this, I will first attempt to locate contemporary news media in its proper context. I will then examine and analyze structural biases inherent in professional newsgathering, which render the concept of self-regulation ineffective and violent for marginalized people. Finally, I will offer both reformist and alternative paths forward to address the problematics of self-regulation and make news media more accountable to the public it is supposed to serve.

Context

Robert McChesney tells us “democratic theory posits society needs journalism” to serve as a watchdog of the powerful and those who chase power, to separate truth from lies and to present a wide range of informed positions on key issues.[1] The idea of neutrality in news media, meanwhile, is a relatively recent phenomenon, having replaced overtly partisan journalism in the 20th Century.[2] As press power consolidated into the hands of fewer chains by the Progressive Era (roughly the early 1900s to the end of the First World War) and advertising drove up the profit margins of newspapers, much of the socialist and populist press folded because it could not/would not pursue ad dollars.[3] So-called “yellow journalism”, or stories focused on sex, scandal, crime and celebrity that frequently involved fabrication became a low-cost way for newspapers to drive circulation numbers and, subsequently, advertising (dollars).[4] By the 1910s, media, suffering a crisis of trust, was being roundly criticized for a one-track capitalistic focus.[5] Professionalism emerged as an attempt by the industry to regulate itself and dampen the critical onslaught.[6] “The argument went that trained editors and reporters were granted autonomy by the owners to make editorial decisions, and these decisions were based on their professional judgment, not the politics of the owners and the advertisers or their commercial interests. As trained professionals, journalists would learn to sublimate their own values as well. Readers could trust what they read and not worry about who owned or worked on the newspaper,” McChesney notes.[7] It is very difficult to suggest that this change within the news industry did anything else except shield it from more external regulation.

Problematics of News Media “Self-Regulation”

However, there are serious problems with the proposition that professional journalism is an objective, neutral recitation of the facts as they occur. Scholars, specifically, The Media Monopoly author Ben Bagdikian, have identified three structural biases in professional journalism ethics codes, McChesney tells us. Firstly, with the aim of exorcizing criticism of the story idea process, “professional journalism regards anything done by official sources — for example, government officials and prominent public figures — as the basis for legitimate news.”[8] Secondly, professional journalism tends to avoid contextualization of the news it covers.[9] And finally, there is a clear pro-business bent to professional journalism, which serves the aims of its corporate masters and advertisers.[10]

A reliance on official sources may be a cheap and cheerful way to gather news[11] but simply getting in close proximity to the powerful lends itself to the potential to merely reproduce officially sanctioned narratives as ‘more true’ than opinions offered elsewhere — specifically, those offered by individuals standing in opposition to the powerful. “Those in political office (and to a lesser extent, business) wield considerable power to set the news agenda by what they speak about and, just as important, what they keep quiet about,” McChesney notes.[12] And, available evidence points to news media’s active complicity in this process of dominant narrative reproduction. A 2001 study by Ina Howard revealed the majority of sources utilized by the nightly newscasts of American networks ABC, CBS and NBC were “white, male and Republican” ─ Republican being the party of the President at the time.[13]  Coercion is also employed to encourage the reproduction of official narratives: journalists who chase stories that no official sources are discussing are sometimes tarred as “unprofessional” and “attempting to introduce bias into the news.”[14] Faced with a reporter undaunted by the accusations of unprofessionalism, official sources may resort to cutting off the journalist[15] — or even the media outlet that employs the journalist.

Tangentially related to the reliance on official sources, contextualization was a casualty of professional journalism because partisan journalism attempted to locate news within a larger ideological framework in order to provide some understanding of it.[16] This does not work for professional journalism because it forces the reporter into a “definite position,”[17] and ostensibly damages her/his supposed neutrality. “To assure that news selection does not appear ideologically driven, reporters and editors grab a news hook to justify a news story.  If something happens, it is news.” This has implications for public discussions about societal ills, McChesney adds. “This means that social issues such as racism and environmental degradation vanish from the headlines unless an event, such as a protest demonstration or the release of an official report, can justify coverage — or unless official sources choose to make it a story.”[18]

Additionally, the pro-corporate bias of professional journalism, while “more subtle”, [19] is real and pervades the whole nature of the craft. Via this bias, professional media plays a significant role in the dissemination of neoliberal values generally and, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, the deployment of the security apparatus that assists in safeguarding the neoliberal and capitalist agenda, specifically. “The affairs of government are therefore more closely scrutinized than are the affairs of big business,” McChesney tells us. “And, of government activities, those that serve the poor (such as welfare) get much more critical attention than those that serve primarily the interests of the wealthy (such as tax dodges or the role of the CIA and other institutions of national security), which are more or less off-limits.”[20] The environment this creates is that which makes it more difficult for government to “regulate in the public interest” and emboldens those who seek to advance the interests of corporations.[21]

Analysis

The over-reliance on official narratives is the praxis of power politics in the public realm. It is not objectivity. It is the violent amplification and further elevation of structural power and works to politically crush the marginalized. It regulates nothing except the perpetuation of traditional power. Examples are myriad. It is seen in the publishing by reporters of law enforcement sources detailing the non-relevant police interactions of a Black man shot dead by a white officer. It manifests in the character assassination of sexual assault survivors by columnists quoting out of context official statistics and then twisting them to suit their agenda. It displays itself in the drowning out of the voices of those standing in opposition to neoliberal principles under a cascade of speeches at news conferences repeating disprovable ideology about corporate tax reduction, service cuts and so-called labour market flexibility.

The reporter’s fear of being cut off is admittedly legitimate. But it is not the end of newsgathering. New, perhaps untested, methods for pursuing stories will need to be attempted. This may mean that different, less structurally powerful voices become magnified in the journalist’s work. This reportage is not necessarily ‘professional’, ‘objective’ newsgathering. Instead, it provides space to voices traditionally suppressed. It is equity of opportunity and, arguably, socially just.

The lack of context in professional news reportage, meanwhile, is a knowledge killer. It plays into the hands of those who would claim that the death and disappearance of approximately 1,200 First Nations women in Canada is a series of unconnected, individual incidents and not a sociological phenomenon. It tells the public nothing about why the news is happening, if it happened before and its implications. It extracts and abstracts significant events from the very aether that often makes them significant.

The pro-corporate bias of professional news, bluntly put, is an implement of status quo capitalism and works to exacerbate social inequality. The markedly unquestioned publishing of reports deriding government spending, public salaries and social programs serves to undermine public confidence in the public realm and diminish citizen interactions with state resources ─ except those which hammer opponents of the racist, heteronormative, patriarchal, neoliberal capitalist hegemony such as police and other security agencies. Add to this the staggering failure by professional media to question the structural foundations of the so-called free market and the state’s relationship with it and the pro-corporate bias reveals itself writ large.

Toward A Better Media

Change is not impossible. Professional journalism can be reformed and media can serve the public. McChesney states journalists have never been “professionals” in the same way doctors and lawyers are, since journalists are employees who don’t own their own businesses and that journalism lacks a “unified scientific code.”[22] McChesney appears to be arguing that because of these issues, journalism cannot or should not be regulated by a college. This line of reasoning fails. Ownership of the means of production is not a pre-requisite for professional regulation in the fields of social work, nursing, respiratory therapy, occupational therapy and teaching. Colleges of Journalism would admittedly be another layer of self-regulation; however, participation would be mandatory — not voluntary like in the case of press councils such as the Ontario Press Council. There would be hearings with consequences for bad, damaging journalism. If a particular College wished not to be inundated with complaints about official source-driven coverage that provides no context and pushes a pro-capital agenda, it could work to implement a unified code of ethics that requires a different approach to the news.

An alternative approach would be to seize a portion of profit from professional journalism agencies and redistribute it to independents. Those independent, non-professional agencies would be required by public, elected committees to provide context, amplify the voices of the structurally marginalized, create news teams that actually reflect the diversity of the subject matter being interrogated and publish coverage that does not smuggle a pro-corporate bias. The state already has the taxation and redistribution powers to implement such an approach. This idea is no more revolutionary than allowing corporate “professional” media agencies to shield themselves behind free press sections of national constitutions while reproducing the worldviews of the ruling elites and gradually converging into a handful (or smaller number) of news economy leviathans.

Conclusions

Professional journalism ethics standards are an abject failure, both as an industry regulator and as a check on the powerful. The inherent biases built into professional journalism intensify structural inequalities and power imbalances. But, change is possible and, indeed, necessary. The boosting and normalization of voices critical of and marginalized by structural power may serve as important barrages in the many battles for social and economic liberation. These are battles in pursuit of truth. They are battles for justice. And the waging of those battles is the role of news media.


[1] Robert W. McChesney, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the Twenty-First Century, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 57.

[2] Ibid., 58.

[3] Ibid., 60.

[4] Ibid., 61.

[5] Ibid., 62.

[6] Ibid., 64.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 68.

[9] Ibid., 71.

[10] Ibid., 72-73.

[11] Ibid., 69.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 70.

[14] Ibid., 69.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 71.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 72.

[20] Ibid., 73.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 67-68.

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