Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Competing Ethos: Reliance on Profit versus Social Responsibility by Laypeople Planning a Television Newscast

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Competing Ethos: Reliance on Profit versus Social Responsibility by Laypeople Planning a Television Newscast

Article excerpt

According to the Pew Research Center (1996), viewership of network news dropped dramatically between 1993 and 1996 as believability ratings of television news declined, and though print readership remained steady, people ranked newspapers as even less believable than television news. Nightly news was the hardest hit, although all of the television news programming in the Pew Center's poll experienced declines in viewership. Bagdikian (1997) reported that public confidence in the news dropped from 55 percent in 1988 to 20 percent in 1993 (p. xx). Cappella and Jamieson (1997) cited several large public opinion studies to demonstrate that "the public's dissatisfaction with the news media is well known," and that this dissatisfaction increased dramatically in the 1990s (p. 210).

Given such evidence, it is possible to argue that many Americans are unhappy with the quality of the news. But it is less clear what citizens would do differently if given the power to plan the news. By allowing citizens to assume the personae of television news producers, we can examine their assumptions about what the purpose of news should be, and what responsibilities the news holds to its audience.

Competing Ethos: Social Responsibility Versus Profitability

Many scholars, journalists, citizens and critics have discussed the news media's ideal function. Merritt (1995) argued "the appropriate role of journalism in a modern democracy is to provide a forum for deliberation of community issues" (p.7). Jensen (1988) wrote, "news is presumably an important resource for political awareness and action by the viewer-citizen" (p. 276), and Bertrand (1993) argued "human society cannot improve, cannot function properly, may not even be able to survive, if the media do not do their job well" (p. vi). From this perspective, the press is a pivotal institution providing its audience with thorough, contextualized information and analysis of public issues, and enabling citizens to participate more fully in a democratic society.

This perspective was articulated eloquently by the Hutchins Commission, which critiqued the phenomenon of monopolistic cross-media ownership: The media as big business "has greatly decreased the proportion of the people who can express their ideas and opinions through the press" (Commission on Freedom of the Press, 1947, p.1). Additionally, those controlling the press "have not provided a service adequate to the needs of the society" (p. 1) because they failed to provide contextualized news and an adequate forum for discussion of public issues. The press, argued the Hutchins Commission, "must be accountable to society for meeting the public need and for maintaining the rights of citizens and the almost forgotten rights of speakers who have no press" (p. 18).

Ultimately, the Hutchins Commission report had little effect on news practice in the United States. Christians, Ferre, and Fackler (1993) claimed that "social responsibility doctrine has always been relegated to the fringes of journalism education and the newsroom. Nearly fifty years after the Hutchins Commission report, news personnel generally remain hostile to its focus on the public good and on broad-based reporting about significant issues of the day" (p. 38). Even though the two are not mutually exclusive, the ethos of news as business has overshadowed that of news as socially responsible institution.

This has been especially so since the media deregulation era of the 1980s. As Bagdikian (1997) reported, the vast majority of U. S. media is controlled by only 10 corporations--down from 50 in 1983 and 26 in 1987 (p. xiii). This business orientation likely affects content; Gitlin (1983) argued television content is determined by the need to attract the largest audience possible in order to sell advertising time.

Because television content is determined by ratings, in one sense the people are "getting what they want." However, as the networks compete for advertising dollars, programs containing potentially controversial material are often avoided. …

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