Distinctions That Matter: Ethical Differences at Large and Small Newspapers

By Reader, Bill | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Distinctions That Matter: Ethical Differences at Large and Small Newspapers


Reader, Bill, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Qualitative interviews with top-level editors at twenty-eight newspapers across the United States (fourteen at "large" newspapers and fourteen at "small" newspapers) revealed how community and newsroom size impact the ways editors conceptualize and deal with certain ethical dilemmas. The findings provide some support for the theory of "connectivity" in journalism: that journalists in small markets are likely to be more in touch with, and more concerned with, community values than journalists in large markets. At large newspapers, journalists approach ethics with more concern for their newspapers' professional reputations, whereas journalists at small newspapers are more concerned about their newspapers' relationships with their communities.

At a routine story-assignment meeting, a newspaper editor hands a reporter a press release announcing a candidate's run for city council and tells the reporter to write a story for the next day's edition. The reporter looks at the press release and says, "Hey, the candidate is my next-door neighbor!" Although one assumes most editors, regardless of their newspapers' sizes, would recognize a conflict of interest in having a reporter cover the political campaign of a neighbor, it would be shortsighted to suggest that all editors would address the situation the same way. Which begs the very simple question: In terms of journalism practice, does size make a substantial difference? And, if so, what is the nature of those differences?

This study tackles those questions, using qualitative interviews with twenty-eight editors at American daily newspapers ranging in size from one of the most widely read in the United States to a few with circulations well below 10,000. They range in location from New England to the deep South, from the Midwest to the West Coast, from rural farming communities to major cities. Some are independent, family-owned operations; others are owned by the largest newspaper companies. Some editors have worked at a number of papers across the nation, and some work in the towns where they were born and raised. While not a probability sample, the papers studied are diverse and provide indicators about the ways editors of different-sized newspapers in different regions and communities might conceptualize ethical norms and approach distinct ethical dilemmas.

The study builds upon past research that considered circulation/ community size as a possible influence on journalistic practices and procedures. The theoretical framework is "connectivity," or the concept that the level of intimacy journalists have with their communities can influence how journalists do their jobs (the concept of "connectivity" is, itself, derived from two other frameworks, "news work" and "imagined community," discussed below). The qualitative method employed an interview schedule using a combination of non-directive, structural, and compare-contrast questions, such that editors were able to conceptualize and express their views about various ethics procedures and problems on their own terms with little or no prompting from the investigator.

Literature Review

From the outset, it should be noted that there is hardly agreement among journalists and scholars that newspaper journalism in the United States can be seen in terms of "big papers" and "small papers," although many researchers have documented such differences.

Small newspapers certainly outnumber large newspapers both in terms of total circulation and in the number of newsrooms (and, by extension, newsroom cultures). An analysis of circulation figures published in the 2004 Editor & Publisher Year Book showed that of the 9,321 U.S. newspapers listed, 9,104 (97.7%) had circulations below 50,000, a common benchmark used to distinguish "big" from "small" newspapers.1 Those 9,104 "small" newspapers reported circulations totaling 108.9 million, compared to a combined circulation of 38.2 million for the 213 "big" newspapers. …

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