The Spectrum of Debate in the News
WHY MIGHT one expect American journalists to index the spectrum of debate in the news to the spectrum of debate in Washington? The indexing hypothesis builds on the work of Herbert J. Gans, Gaye Tuchman, Mark Fishman, Leon V. Sigal, and others who observed the operation of news organizations and the construction of news stories.1 The interpretation of American journalism that emerges in these studies focuses on the powerful set of incentives—pertaining to the need to conserve time, money, and credibility—that encourage reporters to base their stories on the statements of official sources.
It is no mystery why journalists use government officials as news sources. Official sources are the perfect solution to the basic problem journalists confront. Each day, on deadline, journalists have to decide what constitutes news. The world being a vast and complicated place, this is a major task, and rules of thumb are needed.
Although news can happen anywhere, practical considerations limit where reporters are able to look for it. In Sigal's formulation, “To satisfy the requirements of turning out a daily newspaper on deadline with a limited budget and staff, editors have to assign reporters to places where newsworthy information is made public every day. Reporters need sources who can provide information on a regular and timely basis; they are not free to roam or probe at will.”2 A concentration of “places where newsworthy information is made public every day” is found in Washington. The White House, the cabinet departments, Congress, and other offices and agencies of the U.S. government generate an unending flow of statements, briefings, speeches, hearings, resolutions, and other forms of communica-____________________