“Synchronization” means the selection and presentation of news to favor a medium’s marked editorial policy or stance. “Synchronized” news, then, is news selected and presented to support a medium’s anti- or pro-government sentiments, for instance, or its liberal or conservative philosophy (Schoenbach 1977).
The principle of “comments are free; facts are sacred” is supposed to keep journalists from mixing the facts of a news story with evaluations of those facts. Their own opinion has to stay out of the news, and so has the editorial stance of their media organization or the preferences of other persons or institutions. News is supposed to be factual and sober. What its producers or other people think about it, how they judge it, is limited to commentaries and editorials, explicitly marked as such.
What at first sight sounds merely like a style restriction on news (“Do not use judgmental words in your news story!”) is just one requirement for a much more ambitious goal of that professional imperative – to enable the audience to make up its own mind, without being manipulated. This is why the norm of separating facts and opinion also concerns the selection and prominence of the facts presented. Journalists are supposed to select and present facts and opinions for their truth to reality and not to support specific views of the world.
Synchronization thus actually describes two mechanisms of a specific form of news bias. First, synchronization by selection means that facts or arguments supporting the editorial policy of a medium are put forward in the news more often than facts not supporting that perspective. Research shows that methods of that type of synchronization include the use of “opportune witnesses” – i.e., sources in favor of the editorial policy get a better chance to be quoted (Hagen 1993) – and “instrumental actualization” (Kepplinger et al. 1991; Staab 1990) – i.e., invoking former cases, examples, and events that seem to confirm the medium’s interpretation of what is going on in the world.
Second, synchronization by prominence means that facts or statements unfavorable to what a medium regards as its editorial stance are not suppressed completely but presented in a way that renders them unimportant. They may be hidden away in the middle of a lengthy article, not be accompanied by visual material on television, or be attributed to obscure sources.
Synchronization is a more dangerous variant of violating the separation principle, because it does not work with explicit evaluations that an audience could easily recognize as such. Instead, synchronized news looks like factual news. The audience often has no chance to know that important facts and views are systematically omitted or played down, and unimportant ones blown up, in order to make the editorial policy of the medium look reasonable and plausible.
Measuring synchronization of the news and editorial policy is difficult. One might quickly agree that a journalist has openly expressed the political philosophy of his or her newspaper in a news story. But how can it be claimed that facts were missing or presented less prominently than they deserved, in the absence of some agreed-upon external standard?
Two criteria have to be met to demonstrate a synchronization of news and editorial policy. First of all, the selection and presentation of arguments in the news have to resemble the selection and presentation of the arguments used in editorial pieces. This is the easier requirement in an attempt to measure synchronization. It simply means comparing the profiles of reasoning in the news and, for instance, in commentaries where editorial policy can be expressed openly.
The second, more demanding, requirement for demonstrating synchronization deals with its harmful nature. As long as the editorial line is just middle-of-the road or balanced, as long as there is actually no distinct editorial stance, news may not be regarded as problematic by many if it is synchronized with the editorial line and thus also balanced. In a study on synchronization in 22 German media, Schoenbach (1977) suggested a measure for a biased synchronization, one that does not simply present a balanced picture of the world both in the news and in opinion content. He used a proxy for that bias: the coverage of other media. If a medium, he argued, systematically omits facts that do not fit its editorial line, but if those facts are present in other media, would that not indicate a harmful synchronization of facts and opinion? As a standard measure, Schoenbach (1977) used the profile of the information offer of all four German prestige newspapers combined. Prestige or quality newspapers are prestigious because of their claim to be as complete as possible, and in the case of Germany, the four prestige papers cover the left–right political spectrum quite well, as surveys show.
Schoenbach (1977) found some systematic characteristics of media that synchronize their political news and their own – and distinct – editorial policy more often: they are media with a small newsroom staff and serious local competition, and they are well known for their political stance. He explained those results by the attempt of news organizations to get their journalists to obey organizational rules. Self-selection of journalists, their recruitment by the medium, their socialization in the newsroom, and finally mechanisms of social control (see also Breed 1960) are the steps that lead to compliance with the political preferences of a medium in selecting and constructing news.
- Breed, W. (1960). Social control in the news room. In W. Schramm (ed.), Mass communication: A book of readings. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, pp. 178–194.
- Hagen, L. M. (1993). Opportune witnesses: An analysis of balance in the selection of sources and arguments in the leading German newspapers’ coverage of the census issue. European Journal of Communication, 8, 317–343.
- Kepplinger, H. M., Brosius, H-B., & Staab, J. F. (1991). Instrumental actualization: A theory of mediated conflicts. European Journal of Communication, 6, 263–290.
- Schoenbach, K. (1977). Trennung von Nachricht und Meinung: Empirische Untersuchung eines journalistischen Qualitätskriteriums [Separation of facts and opinion: An empirical study of a criterion of journalistic quality]. Freiburg and Munich: Karl Alber.
- Staab, J. F. (1990). The role of news factors in news selection: A theoretical reconsideration. European Journal of Communication, 5, 423–443.