The Daily Balancing Act: Media Social Responsibility vs Profitability

By Allen, William | St. Louis Journalism Review, May 1994 | Go to article overview

The Daily Balancing Act: Media Social Responsibility vs Profitability


Allen, William, St. Louis Journalism Review


There's an intricate ecology of forces that on one hand wants to attract readers by appealing to the emotions and pocketbooks and on the other hand, wants to attract readers by appealing to the intellect and the thirst for information.

Journalism, like someone once said about history, is just one damn thing after another. At least that's the way many newspeople feel. Even those of us professional journalists who view our jobs as a public service and a public trust sometimes slip into that low gear.

But mainly we try to be as positive and responsible as possible in pursuing our mission: to report the news to the public in an independent way, a way that informs and engages, a way that serves the public welfare. That's hard to do, for many reasons.

One reason, at the level of the reporter, is that we are often pulled, despite our inner compasses, in the direction of one or more competing philosophies of the newsroom, ranging from the pursuit of thorough reporting and analytical writing, to demands for brevity and entertainment, to an attitude best summed up by the following statement years ago by Andy Rooney of CBS News: "Just find out what the editor wants, how long he wants it, and when he wants it. Then get it to him on time. It doesn't have to be any good."

Another phenomenon that makes responsible -- and independent -- journalism difficult in this day and age is the preponderance of a kind of confused pack mentality, best exemplified in newsrooms around the country by "The New York Times Effect" and the "USA Today Effect." John Osburn, writing in the Nation in 1989, may have described this best by giving the following definitions:

"New York Times, The n. The primary publication of the principal American city, admired out of all proportion to its actual quality by newspaper EDITORS, who thereafter instruct their REPORTERS never, under any circumstances, to produce an article similar to one that might typically appear there . . .

"USA Today n. The primary publication of the nation, derided and sneered at by newspaper EDITORS, who thereafter instruct their REPORTERS to imitate its every aspect."

No wonder the mission and meaning of responsible journalism is so difficult to penetrate. And these are only two cuts into the issue of who we journalists are, what we're doing this for, and what role our media outlets should play. Basically, we come from so many backgrounds and philosophies about journalism that it sometimes seems we still, as a group, have not figured out how we should choose our stories, gather information about them and present them.

Underlying all this confusion is a fundamental paradox and a fundamental tension in how the American news media operate: Box Office versus Responsibility to the Public.

"Box Office" refers to the fact that newspapers are essentially businesses. They exist to make money. They make money basically by selling ads and they sell ads basically by their ability to get lots of readers to read the paper. Readers read the paper for many different reasons, but "box office" theory maintains that they read it because the stories in it are entertaining, easy to read and understand and relevant to the readers' individual needs -- thus they will spend hard-earned dollars to buy it.

"Responsibility to the Public" refers to a newspaper's civic obligation to contribute to informing the electorate in a democratic society. The media must report the news in a complete, meaningful and fair way so that citizens can choose the best offerings from the "marketplace of ideas," making their informed decisions at the ballot box accordingly.

The paradox (between box office and responsibility) is very real. A newspaper must be profitable to survive, and yet it must responsibly report the news to live up to its democratic mission.

The tensions are very real, too -- played out hour by hour and person by person in newsrooms around the country. …

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