Newsmakers arrange a press conference to announce news to groups of reporters. The meetings vary in size, setting, and subject. Some detail plans and decisions. Others promise surprise revelations. A common feature distinguishes all press conferences: the opportunity for reporters to question a newsmaker.
The most familiar are those of presidents, prime ministers, and crisis managers during key events, but smaller press conferences supply much of the information the public receives as news. The thousands of briefings, councils, and exchanges that the public seldom sees generate the daily flow of news. In most countries, the press conferences of government officials, dignitaries, business leaders, activists, scientists, politicians, and entertainers shape national news. In local communities, the same is true of the press conferences that civic leaders, police and emergency personnel, arriving celebrities, and sports figures hold.
For their sponsors, as well as for those obliged or impelled to become newsmakers, press conferences are opportunities to reach the public. Not all the information they provide is urgent and vital. Press conferences are first and foremost a public relations device that fails unless it supplies news. Except for those conferences broadcast live, the public knows about press conferences only through reporters’ later news accounts. Newsmakers cannot control what unfolds in a press conference, given the uncertainty of reporters’ questions, which can foul the messages newsmakers seek to convey.
For reporters, press conferences are essential but not without constraints. Research shows that reporters dislike press conferences for forcing them to share information with competitors, but appreciate them for allowing direct access to those making news (Bantz 1985). Alert reporters watch for angles and leads that might later inspire a story that will scoop the competition or win an award.
Press conferences are characteristic of older democratic countries, notably the United States, where governments do not control the press. Only in societies with many news organizations are press conferences needed. Press conferences are rare in authoritarian societies where press systems are monolithic and run by the state (Frederick 1993). The first press conferences were convened around the beginning of the twentieth century when newspapers first gave regular assignments to writers and correspondents. In the United States, President Theodore Roosevelt popularized press sessions. His famed pulpit for Progressive Era reforms was the talks he gave to the reporters assigned the White House beat (McKerns 1990). US president Franklin Roosevelt developed the modern press conference format during the New Deal programs in 1933. Seeking favorable publicity, Roosevelt invited question-and-answer sessions (Winfield 1990). Even so, by mid-century, when Harry Truman was US president, only newspaper and wire service reporters could attend. Microphones were prohibited, and reporters had to crowd around the president’s Oval Office desk (Startt 1990).
Dramatic changes came with the arrival of television in the 1950s. Under US president Dwight Eisenhower, press conferences became public events. The rules changed, and reporters sat in large auditoriums. The first televised press conference, with Eisenhower, was broadcast in 1954. Early TV press conferences were recorded on film. Finally in 1961, US president John Kennedy permitted live cameras. His appearances captivated the public, and every succeeding president followed his example by doing press conferences on live TV (Allen 1993).
A major criticism of press conferences – that newsmakers arrange media events for the cameras – emerged because of television. US president Ronald Reagan, a former actor, staged press conferences with Hollywood-like effects. Engaging TV communication, directed not at reporters but at opinion leaders and home viewers, contributed to Reagan’s popularity. News reporters could not question him effectively (Donaldson 1987). Other leaders including Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and Russian president Boris Yeltsin were known for staging press conferences with popular and charismatic appeal.
The presence of cameras influences even the most routine press sessions. Only major press conferences attract live TV coverage, but almost all aim for televised accounts and recaps on the evening news. Research shows that reporters and their editors reduce and frequently eliminate coverage of press conferences they perceive as media events (Berkowitz 1993; Harmon 1989). Studies further suggest that the largest news organizations most often compress or dismiss press events (Carroll 1986). To help insure coverage, newsmakers answer reporters with rehearsed statements appropriate for TV sound bites. They also attend to the needs that Reagan instilled, for staging and for looking at the camera so that they appear to speak to the viewer (Hilton 1990).
Around the world, press conferences are spurred by policies that seek privatization and media multiplicity. In Japan and many Asian countries, and particularly in western Europe, monolithic state-operated public broadcasters are joined by numerous private networks and channels (Dragomir & Reljic 2005). In the UK, televised press conferences were not common until the 1980s and 1990s, when newsmakers needed to gather reporters not only from the BBC but from Sky-TV, newly expanded independent channels, and other private TV news providers.
Changes within the US media stemming from the fragmentation and decline of newspaper and broadcast audiences have encouraged alternatives to press conferences. When print, broadcast, and online news providers employ a common newsroom, newsmakers can give announcements to the one reporter that several media share (Quinn & Filak 2005). In another trend, the media have divided news staffs into specialty teams, with the aim of targeting particular demographic groups. Instead of convening a mass gathering of reporters, newsmakers now channel information to appropriate specialists.
Changes in media technology have accompanied the evolution of press conferences. Little research has been conducted on the impact of recent technology. Yet from the Internet, reporters can acquire information with superior detail to that packaged in press sessions. Compelling questions for scholars relate to newsmakers’ uses of new technology. Newsmakers can avoid the ordeal of convening reporters in some situations, communicating directly to the public through websites, weblogs, streaming audio and video, and other innovations, many of them incorporating interactivity.
Despite changing arrangements and newer techniques, press conferences are still useful. They remain the standard means for news exchange, because of their convenience, expedience, and success at disseminating information widely. Press conferences can enlarge the esteem of organizations and leaders, and so newsmakers continue to meet the press. Reporters continue to attend for the volume of news and the interaction that the meetings provide.
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