News and magazines

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to evaluate the information provided by the news media.

Evaluating the news media

Articles in newspapers and magazines rarely reach the standards of objectivity and balance attained in academic sources. Treatment of quite complex issues may be superficial or tend towards the sensational. This is equally true for radio and television as well as the print media.

Making the news

Most people assume that the role of the journalist is to "find out what was going on and to print it". In practice, journalists almost never just report the news. More often, what they do is to make the news. Writing a newsworthy story involves emphasis and omission, exclusion and inclusion. Some "facts" are not disclosed and others are downplayed. Opinion is often used to fill in the unknown.

The problem of spin

Much of what is reported in paper and on the airwaves consists of media releases or statements made by on behalf of businesses, politicians, union leaders and government officials. Most of these individuals are concerned with "spin" or putting their own slant to the news. More 60% of the new stories in Australian newspapers are based on media releases from PR firms. In some sections of the paper, such as IT pages, this figure rises to close to 100%.

This is not to say that this information is worthless. Newspapers and general interest magazines become primary sources when used by historians and other researchers to reconstruct past events. Even the most misleading media release tells you the official position: what an agency or firm wanted members of the public to believe at a particular point in time. Successive media releases can illustrate changing corporate or political strategies

Journalists as non-experts

Another reason for caution when assessing material in the mass media is that most journalists are non-experts. Even when a journalist specialises in a particular area of reportage, he or she is still only a member of the public. Medical reporters or science reporters are not doctors, clinicians or scientists. Popular reports of the latest cancer breakthrough or miracle cure are typically sensationalistic and inaccurate.

Information and opinion

Journalist often distinguish between "straight reporting" and "commentary". The trend in recent years has been to blur this distinction. Most newspapers have now moved opinion pieces from the traditional "op-ed" pages to the hard news section. Major news stories are increasingly likely to be reported once as a straight news story and again as an opinion piece, sometimes on the same page. The result is that what is presented as hard news is embedded in a mass of commentary, much of which is highly subjective.

Media concentration

Media concentration has almost certainly reduced the quality of reporting in the Australian media. Newspapers and other media outlets are rarely disinterested observers in relation to state or national politics. The editorial interventions of proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch or the late Kerry Paker are notorious. The News Ltd papers, The Australian in particular, have functioned for decades as champions of economic liberitarianism.

Some guidelines

When evaluating material from the popular media, consider the following:

  • Has the writer presented a balanced view or simply the appearance of balance?
  • What is the likely source of the news story? Is it the result of independent reporting or does it come second-hand?
  • Are there signs of sensationalism or emotional language?
  • How credible are the conclusions drawn by the writer from his or her evidence?
  • Can you see any holes in the writer's arguments?
  • Are there alternatives to the explanations provided by the writer?

Above all, compare the information you have gained from the popular media with that contained in other, more reliable sources (such as peer-reviewed journal articles).

Summary

This module examined:

  • the role of journalists in the creation of news.
  • the necessity of carefully evaluating the information from newspapers, magazines and other news media.

Web research