Quality of the news is a difficult and complex concept to define. Who determines what is good quality and what is not? Quality depends in part on what uses and gratifications are demanded from the media. Taking a liberal standpoint one could say that quality is what the audience wants. Another view would be to let media professionals, such as journalists and editors, act as moral agents and establish a set of criteria that defines good quality. The literature has, in sum, taken the view of professionals as the starting point.
A high-quality news service is expected to help citizens make informed decisions that in turn will help develop society. This view has support from disciplines other than journalism and mass communication studies, such as economics. Here, a high-quality news service is perceived to help economic development, as it reduces uncertainty by providing accurate and reliable information. In political science the media is seen as the fourth estate, informing citizens, maintaining checks and balances on the political process, and thereby increasing the efficiency of government and helping to resolve social conflict by giving a multifaceted description of events, among other things. The above functions are largely supported by what the journalism and mass communication literature describes as commonly shared professional standards of journalism. Sometimes, however, there is tension between these standards and a demand for a lighter kind of news reporting, geared toward entertaining sensationalism, that pits professionalism against commercialism. In fact, Downs (1957) showed that it is theoretically irrational for citizens to vote, since it is highly unlikely that any individual citizen’s vote would be crucial. Therefore, the audience should have a preference for entertainment rather than hard-todigest quality news about political affairs. Hence, the personal rewards gained by attaining and digesting quality news may be lower than the personal cost of obtaining them. Also, the individual news consumer may not internalize the benefits to society of having well-informed citizens. However, a US study by Gladney (1996) polled editors and readers of 251 newspapers, grouped by size of circulation, asking them to rank 18 measures of news quality, and found that there was less divergence between readers and editors than the logic based on Downs would predict.
Measures Of News Quality
Generally, research divides the definitions of news media quality into three subcategories: content, organizational, and financial commitment (Hollifield 2006).
Content is a matter of several aspects, but some measures are: balance and fairness – lack of sensationalism; accuracy – lack of bias; news Quality of the News interpretation; relevance of the news presented and reliance on authoritative sources; comprehensive coverage and presentation of multiple points of view; favorable coverage of different groups in society; strong local coverage; the community press standard – emphasis on community values and institutions; a strong editorial page; visual appeal; and good writing.
Organizational aspects of quality can be divided into two major categories. Editorial quality includes: editorial independence and courage – freedom from outside pressure by political interest groups and economic forces; impartiality – fairness in gathering and reporting news; influence with opinion leaders; and community leadership – willingness to take an active role in the betterment and welfare of the community. Journalistic staff features include: professionalism – e.g., the level of education, experience, and willingness to fight against wrong; staff enterprise – aggressive and original reporting; decency; and integrity – a keen sense of professional ethics.
The content and organizational measures of news quality have a long tradition in the literature but have suffered critique for being too subjective and difficult to replicate. These measures are usually judgments by panels of professional experts and are by definition difficult to duplicate. As a response to this critique, measures of financial commitment emerged (Litman & Bridges 1986; Bogart 1981, 2004).
Financial commitment can be divided into four sub-categories. Copy includes the advertising–editorial copy ratio, the amounts of locally produced copy and nonadvertising copy, the length of stories in terms of offering readers depth, and the number of in-depth, investigative, or interpretive stories. Graphics includes the amount of visual and graphic material. Journalistic includes the size of the news staff, reporter workloads, and the number of stories or amount of time devoted to news programming. Technical includes the number of news agencies subscribed to and investment in news-gathering technologies such as satellite trucks. These criteria are not measurements of news quality per se, but are considered to be a measure of the amount of resources that are needed to produce such quality (Litman & Bridges 1986). The quantitative measures of financial commitment require little, if any, subjective judgments and are thus better suited to duplication.
The Use Of Quality Measures
The above measures of quality have been devised for the purpose of measuring not so much quality per se as how other institutional factors and the degree of competition affect news quality. Increased news media competition has in a number of studies been shown to be linked to higher measures of news quality. News media (print and broadcast) have been found to increase their financial commitment in news production as the intensity of competition over market shares increases. Studies have also shown that high-quality newspapers and broadcasters do better in terms of circulation/ratings than do low-quality ones. In fact, increased measures of quality not only affect relative market shares, but also increase total news demand in a given market. However, these findings originate in research undertaken in either the US or other developed markets that feature a very low degree of competition after a century of news media consolidation . More recent international research indicates, however, that in conditions of hyper-competition, more competition may in fact yield lower quality news products (Hollifield 2006; van der Wurff & van Cuilenburg 2001; Becker et al. 2006).
Concerning the effects of public ownership of news media, research has shown that profit margins are higher in publicly owned news media companies due to pressures from investors. News organizations often respond to these pressures by cutting the largest cost item, i.e., personnel, thereby reducing financial commitment and leading to lower scores in other measures of news quality.
Implications Of Media Quality
Different groups value news quality differently. From a professional viewpoint, high scores in the above quality measures or awards such as Pulitzer prizes constitute success. Taking the view of readers, circulation is a proper measure, while investors would value profitability. Research has established a positive link between quality and circulation/ ratings, while high circulation/ratings do not necessarily imply high profitability.
A problem in this research is how to establish causality between different measures of quality and factors that affect and are affected by news quality. Quality has been found to positively affect circulation/ratings, but a strong case is made for the reverse causality. Given the logic that in order to achieve a high measure of quality a news organization needs financial commitment, which in turn comes from high circulation/ratings, then small newspapers/broadcasters do not have the same resources as big ones to produce quality news. This effect is amplified by the fact that advertisers tend to converge on high circulation/ratings news organizations. Gladney (1990) found that smaller newspapers can’t really compete with big ones in staff enterprise, staff professionalism, news interpretation, and comprehensive news coverage, as these demand greater resources. Logan and Sutter (2004) found that 91 percent of all Pulitzer prizes in 1997 went to newspapers in the top quintile in terms of circulation the same year. This is not surprising, as the news industry exhibits increasing returns to scale. That is, producing a news item is costly while distribution to the audience is very cheap. It therefore makes economic sense to have few producers investing in news production.
The literature is not clear on whether the measurements of news quality are valid for all socio-economic groups in society. Concerns have been voiced that the measures used are elitist in character, mainly appealing to the well-educated urban classes. In studies by Gladney (1990, 1996) editors at larger, often metropolitan, newspapers emphasized staff enterprise, staff professionalism, and comprehensive news coverage. Their counterparts at smaller newspapers placed greater value on community leadership, strong local news coverage, decency, and the community press standard, which is an “emphasis on news coverage that focuses on common community values and helps give readers a sense of individual existence and worth.” (Gladney 1990, 62). Readers were found to largely hold these same values, especially concerning strong local press coverage and the community press standard, confirming earlier research. Hence, large (metropolitan) and small (local) news media can fulfill different functions, with the latter complementing the former in terms of more locally focused news. This illuminates the difficulty of applying one standard of excellence to all news markets.
Another channel through which the size of circulation/ratings can affect measures of quality is the risk of media capture, which describes a situation where the content of a news organization is controlled by some external political or economic organization (Besley & Prat 2006). If this influence is attained by economic means such as bribes or ownership, smaller, poorer news organizations are likely to be more susceptible than wealthier ones. As the economic performance of news organizations declines with increased competition, high degrees of competition may then increase the risk of media capture, which is relevant for the organizational quality measures of editorial courage, decency, accuracy, etc. Apart from leading to media capture, extreme competition is also likely to reduce measures of financial commitment as revenues drop. The research on the negative effects of competition is small and recent (Hollifield 2006; Becker et al. 2006; van der Wurff & van Cuilenburg 2001), which to a large extent is a result of the fact most research is focused on the consolidated US media market. However, more international research is needed on this issue, as many emerging economies exhibit extreme levels of media competition.
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