News agencies are transnational media organizations that write and distribute stories and their components, such as images and interviews, to the news media. Audiences see their words and images upon almost every exposure to news, without usually knowing it. The original news agencies formed between 1835 and 1850 to fill the growing newspaper industry demand for stories. They later distributed photographs and eventually merged with newsreel companies or their successors, coming to dominate the distribution of television news images as well.
Research Questions On News Agencies
The practices news agencies follow to create the international affairs journalism that the public are exposed to every day is an under researched area of journalism studies and international communication, perhaps because two research traditions failed to intersect. The sociological tradition began in the 1970s with ethnographic research projects in newsrooms (Tuchman 1978; Gans 1979) but declined without extending to news agencies. Also in the 1970s, scholars of international communication subjected previously little-known news agencies to scrutiny as potential agents of cultural imperialism and neo-colonialism. Their role as the dominant sources of news from developing countries highlighted imbalances in the flow of news and the power of these institutions to shape perceptions of other cultures (especially those least able to mold their own images). But then interest in news agencies also declined, and the two research traditions have rarely combined, leaving little understanding of production within these influential institutions.
News agencies exist around the world at the national and local levels, some publicly funded, some commercial, but in the production and distribution of global wholesale news (Boyd-Barrett 1980), only two companies dominate: UK-based Reuters and USbased Associated Press (AP). Many factors led to the emergence of a duopoly in international news provision. Agence France-Presse (AFP) competes in some spheres, but its presence online and on television is small. The formerly powerful American agency United Press International once spurred greater investment in international reporting from the AP (Boyd-Barrett 2000), but after numerous ownership changes and its eventual takeover by the Unification Church, now has little influence or credibility among journalists. AP and Reuters dominate global news distribution in text (newspaper and websites), in still pictures, and in video; they are the only multimedia, fully international news services providing original reporting on events worldwide.
Critics often accuse news agencies of producing a bland product, devoid of color and enterprise reporting, and dependent on official definitions of news. But in the realms they know well, such as conflict zones and developing regions, the agencies frequently break stories that other media miss. Even so, research has demonstrated a constrained, homogeneous content dictated by the ideology, structure, and culture of these organizations (Wallis & Baran 1990; Hjarvard 1995; Cohen et al. 1996; Paterson 1998).
News Agency Production
Recent large-scale research on news agencies is rare. Two major studies published in the 1980s did not include extensive research on the production process (Boyd-Barrett 1980; Fenby 1986). A later study of global news wholesalers was mostly interview based (Johnston 1995). The most recent published scholarship examines television agencies (Paterson 1998), focusing on video news production but not on the processing of photos or, more crucially, text. The remaining literature includes master’s dissertations, brief insider accounts of agency work, and some features in other media. For example, two disenchanted Reuters journalists wrote about the financial woes of the company (Mooney & Simpson 2003), but revealed little about the news production process. The existing observations and anecdotal evidence, along with earlier research, allow some generalizations about agency news production.
News agencies claim to follow the interests of the news media they serve, but they frequently lead that interest, or set the news agenda, by providing the first coverage of breaking stories. A story the agencies deem unworthy is unlikely to gain global exposure through other means. The agencies have separate divisions for text, photography, and video, which occasionally coordinate their work but more often act autonomously to distribute their product quickly. Whether the ability to deliver these previously distinct media forms in a unified digital transmission from anywhere in the world will challenge that autonomy remains to be seen. Speed drives everything in news agencies, and observation of rival agencies (and major broadcasters like the BBC and CNN) is the key determinant of what is fast enough. To their credit, agencies continue to maintain standards of accuracy that some media outlets have sacrificed.
Each major news agency maintains about 200 bureaus around the world. Although many of these are little more than a one-person operation, the largest employ hundreds of journalists. The role of the bureau is to send information and images as quickly as possible to a central processing and distribution point, generally the London, New York, or Paris newsroom, and follow up soon after with further details and interviews.
The central newsrooms will assist in that process or commission other coverage, as long as the bureaus deliver some information and images rapidly to get something out to clients in (literally, at times) seconds. Bureaus and the central newsrooms also monitor other media for information and story ideas, and take coverage requests from client media. As with newspapers, writers work quickly to craft stories with basic, verifiable information, and then send it on to an editor for review. That editor will then put it out to clients. The difference with video is that editors must select and edit the images coming in and then send them, with a list of shots and the accompanying textual information, to clients by satellite.
In a 2006 two-part series for the Poynter Institute, a trade organization based in Florida, media business analyst Rick Edmonds writes that practices are evolving to replace what AP staff call “the fire hose”: the massive, continuous stream of content pumped to clients in the mode of the old clattering wire service teleprinter once present in every newsroom worldwide (Edmonds 2006a, b). Television journalists call the overload of news agency images “video wallpaper.” Agencies have always trusted clients to select and sort the news themselves, as in the classic research by White (1950). Now an agency can use new technologies to deliver to specific clients the specific content they want, and can devote more resources to specialized topics than to the old bread-and-butter of political news and international conflict.
News agency workers commonly speak of moving the images (whether still or video) to their clients, a term that trades on the myth of objectivity. It enables agency workers to imagine themselves as simple conduits for information and pictures, rather than determinants of the news (a more onerous responsibility). But in the classic response, even choosing where to put the camera is making a subjective choice. The term obscures the process of story choosing and framing, deciding news-gathering approaches, selecting and editing images, determining what information does and does not accompany images, and choosing which client sees which image.
In the television divisions of agencies, bureau chiefs (who often are also producers or videographers) strive to obtain television pictures of interest to their editors in London (or in regional hubs like Hong Kong) by whatever means possible. When the ideal – having a staff photographer at the scene – is impossible, the bureau chiefs or London editors try to obtain pictures through other means, including bidding for images from anyone who might have them. Such decisions have a secondary or incidental effect, because expensive footage purchased today may require the bureau to drop some costly coverage from the agenda tomorrow.
The headquarters of television agencies typically divide labor between intake and output; the former is focused on bringing in information and images via satellite links, the latter with figuring out how and where to disseminate it. An Editor of the Day oversees the development of story coverage and resource deployment around the world and determines minute-to-minute priorities (while seeking also to control costs). A Managing Editor, sometimes in cooperation with senior executives, determines the agency’s focus on larger stories (a process media scholars might call framing) and decides on the most sensitive issues, such as how to deploy the staff in dangerous areas.
Morning and afternoon editorial meetings ensure that everyone is working toward common goals and knows what coverage needs are coming up. A similar process unfolds through the day in the photo and text divisions of each company, although these may have offices in other parts of the world. In the 1990s, Reuters held a weekly meeting between senior television and text journalists to plan and coordinate future coverage.
Most news is really olds – that is, expected and planned for, especially internationally (Galtung & Ruge 1970). Key to news agency coverage, to a greater extent than for other media, is future or forward planning. The manager assigns several journalists to this task, assembling complex diaries of anticipated events and briefing editorial meetings about them. On lesser stories, how sure the journalists are about a story’s prospects can make the difference in whether an event reaches the newsrooms of the world or not. Planning is especially crucial at news agencies because other media use the planning diaries that agencies circulate to decide on their own world and national coverage.
The importance of planning at news agencies highlights the considerable power that agency coverage budgets have over what does and does not become the news of the world. It also highlights the probably dominant role of pseudo-events (Curran & Seaton 1997): the scheduled, staged media events of key actors seeking to be the dominant voice on some issue of international importance.
Constraints On Production
The production processes of news agencies permit them to be efficient news factories, but also perpetuate many general problems scholars have identified with the standard western model of journalism. For instance, to meet the expectations of their clients, agencies typically seek out news elites for interviews and so legitimate the status quo and further exclude alternative perspectives in international affairs (Galtung & Ruge 1970; Golding & Elliott 1979).
Management and news processing structures in news agencies, at least in television divisions, seem designed not to insulate a journalist’s decisions from commercial considerations but to insure that these prevail (Gitlin 1980; Paterson 1998). In television news agencies, the main concerns were the preferences and cultural biases of the wealthiest news agency clients and, to a lesser extent, the European public broadcasters with whom they collaborate in the Eurovision News Exchange (Cohen et al. 1996). The power of the Exchange is fading, and agencies now provide video straight to consumers online, in competition with their traditional television network clients.
News agencies are unique entities because a fairly homogeneous core cadre of news workers commissions, processes, and edits – that is, has control over – an enormous flow of words and images from around the world. Each news agency promotes its internationalism and lack of allegiance to any single cause or nation, but patterns of prioritizing particular nations, news actors, and values are clear (Schiff 1996). News agency workers do tend to be exceptionally knowledgeable and cosmopolitan, as well as culturally and linguistically adept. Their isolation from commercial pressure is generally more genuine than is typical of commercial newspapers and broadcasters.
Reuters and the AP are equally ubiquitous in cyberspace, but they have pursued different online strategies. Reuters moved away from the distribution pattern of its roots, while the AP has remained mostly tied to the subscription model it has relied on for 150 years. Consistent with its origins, the AP provides links to its content only through the websites of member newspapers, as a means of protecting the print media that own it. Reuters still depends on subscriptions in its agreements with media organizations that receive video, audio, and text feeds, but it has also gone into competition with its subscribers, becoming an online news service marketing directly to the consumer and supplying its branded stories through news websites.
In 2006, Reuters announced a partnership with Yahoo! to bring in photographs from the general public and circulate newsworthy ones internationally. The announcement seems a striking contradiction to Reuters’ long-held line that its essential value lies in the professional creation of the news product, but it may represent one more necessary adaptation to a changed media world. And, as Edmonds describes, agencies increasingly call on journalists to produce a multimedia product, just as other kinds of newsrooms do (Edmonds 2006a, b).
In 2004 Reuters announced that it would shift some news production for its business services to India. It argued that writing about the press releases of small US companies could be accomplished more cheaply there than in the UK or US, but also promised no job losses as a result. It is reasonable to expect news agencies to continue to shift more mundane aspects of news production to low-wage countries, further decentralizing production, without decentralizing command and control.
A crucial aspect of news agency production is safety. News coverage for some of the most common agency stories, those of international conflict, is becoming so risky that new and probably less effective news-gathering strategies must be developed. In Sierra Leone in 2000, guerrilla fighters killed two of the leading news agency journalists in an ambush, one from Reuters, the other from AP. Some leading hotspots are proving that in war, no journalist is safe and no side in the conflict can be counted upon for protection. The efforts at censorship, the direct violence, and the imprisonments have imposed an especially high price on news agency journalists.
The Palestinian government, for example, confiscated video tape of a cheering Palestinian crowd, shot by an AP television news photographer on September 11, 2001, and deleted portions of the tape, presumably to stop the international exposure of images that could fuel a backlash against Palestinians after the attacks in the US. For its part, the US military is known to have killed four Reuters journalists in Iraq (Paterson 2005). US forces have held news agency workers for long periods without charge, and Reuters alleged in 2004 that some were tortured. The US government has labeled each case justifiable or accidental, but the calls for independent investigation continue. Journalists are under threat in many parts of the world, but in Iraq the toll for news agencies has been unusual. Being a news agency photographer in proximity to military activity in Iraq is clearly a risky endeavor.
In other ways, governments show a growing sophistication in their understanding of global news distribution. The government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, shortly before it fell, banned CNN from Baghdad and permitted Reuters to remain only on condition of refusing to feed images to a most valued client, CNN. Reuters agreed, in deference to the remaining clients around the world. Agency journalists admit privately that the threat of manipulation or outright bans prevent them from engaging in the investigative or highly critical journalism about host governments that other media might attempt.
News agencies create much of the public image of the world. It is nearly impossible to consult a national or international story online or in a newspaper without reading the words of AP, Reuters, or AFP, and one is unlikely to watch television for long without seeing images from these agencies (although rarely identified as such). After 150 years of news agencies shaping the public image of the world, scholars still know little about how and why they cover what they do, report as they do, and disseminate their journalism as they do. The processes of convergence and the demands of the new media environment are changing news production processes and expanding the influence of news agencies while further limiting public understanding of these institutions.
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