Political advocacy is not journalists’ main concern. They are chiefly in the business of gathering and disseminating the daily news, and they define themselves more by their professionalism than by their partisanship. According to McQuail (1994, 145), “The height of [journalists’] professional skill is the exercise of a practical craft, which delivers the required institutional product, characterized by a high degree of objectivity, key marks of which are obsessive facticity and neutrality of attitude”.
Even the political frames that journalists apply to political coverage do not routinely center on the interests at stake in politics. Political conflict and gamesmanship are among journalists’ preferred frames. In many democracies, questions of policy, rather than being at the center of the news, are often a backdrop to the struggle for political advantage.
It is a mistake, however, to dismiss partisan advocacy as an insignificant component of modern journalism. Many of the national dailies in Europe and elsewhere are associated with a particular party or ideology. Of course, they differ in important ways from oldtime partisan newspapers. Financed by circulation and advertising revenues rather than government or party subsidies, their news is professionally produced. Nevertheless, the vitality of these newspapers flows from their partisan leanings and the loyalty of their partisan readers. Nor are broadcast organizations completely outside the fray of partisanship. In Germany, Italy, and Korea, to cite a few examples, broadcasting at times has been structured in ways that allow partisanship to enter into news decisions.
Colin Seymour-Ure (1974) proposed the concept of “press–party parallelism” as a way of expressing the relationship between news organizations and political parties. In their recent work, Hallin and Mancini (2004) describe a tighter link between press and party in Mediterranean countries than in northern and central European countries, which, in turn, have a more partisan press than do English-speaking countries.
Even where ties between news organizations and parties are weak or nonexistent, journalists themselves may promote partisan agendas through their news decisions. Allegations of “hidden” bias have surfaced in many countries, partly because surveys have found that most journalists lean toward the left politically. Although studies have not produced uniform results, the weight of the research evidence points to the existence of this form of bias. Kepplinger et al. (1991) found, for example, that journalists’ partisan leanings affect their choices about which issues and positions to highlight. They use the term “instrumental actualization” to describe this pattern. Patterson and Donsbach’s (1996) five-country survey found in each country that journalists’ partisanship was statistically related to their responses to hypothetical news decisions. The authors conclude, however, that partisan bias is a much smaller influence on news decisions than are journalism norms and conventions.
In some instances, news journalists and organizations serve to legitimize the views of those in power, regardless of party. Bennett (1990) found that the news is “indexed” to elite debate rather than to public opinion. Unless there is substantial disagreement among political authorities, news coverage is likely to highlight the official position only. In such instances, as Entman (2003) notes, the news media act nearly as a propaganda wing of the government.
On the other hand, the absence of an elite consensus widens the range of voices, including nongovernmental voices, brought into the news. Elite disputes also unleash criticisms by journalists of those in power. Major studies of US, UK, German, and Swedish news have found that attack journalism is on the rise. When governing authorities are at odds, journalists’ deference to those in power often gives way to criticisms of leaders of both sides. Their motives, methods, and effectiveness are questioned. Based on their Swedish study, Westerståhl and Johansson (1986) see this development as a “news ideology” premised on the assumption that politicians are self-serving and rooted in the notion that journalists are professionals whose responsibilities include keeping watch on those in power. The effect, as the research of Cappella and Jamieson (1997) suggests, is to weaken the public’s support of political leaders and institutions.
In one area, the politics of the media is one-sided. Given their dependence on advertising revenue, mainstream news outlets tread lightly when it comes to business exposes. The news, as Hamilton (2004) remarks, is an “information good,” a thing to be sold to advertisers and audiences. Although major corporate scandals get news coverage when they break, news organizations do not invest heavily in investigating private-sector actions. News organizations and journalists do not so much promote corporate power as they ignore it, allowing business leaders wide leeway in their dealings, thus helping to maintain a distinction between marketplace power and governing power.
- Bennett, W. L. (1990). Toward a theory of press–state relations in the United States. Journal of Communication, 40, 103 –125.
- Cappella, J., & Jamieson, K. H. (1997). The press and the public good. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Entman, R. (2003). Projections of power: Framing news, public opinion, and US foreign policy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Hallin, D. C., & Mancini, P. (2004). Comparing media systems: Three models of media and politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Hamilton, J. T. (2004). All the news that’s fit to sell. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Kepplinger, H. M., Brosius, H., & Staab, J. F. (1991). Instrumental actualization: A theory of mediated conflicts. European Journal of Communication, 6, 263 –290.
- McQuail, D. (1994). Mass communication theory. London: Sage.
- Patterson, T., & Donsbach, W. (1996). News decisions: Journalists as partisan actors. Political Communication, 13, 455 – 468.
- Seymour-Ure, C. (1974). The political impact of mass media. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Westerståhl, J., & Johansson, F. (1986). News ideologies as molders of domestic news. European Journal of Communication, 1, 133 –149.