The Hierarchy of Influences and journalists’ editorial decision-making

A profound understanding of journalism would be impossible without some appreciation of the factors impinging upon editorial decision-making (Belsey & Chadwick, 1992). Editorial decisions are influenced in a number of ways. Journalists operate in the midst of dense and complex relationships with other journalists, with the media organisations that employ their services, and with institutions and intangible forces in the wider society. The diagram presented in Figure 1, based on the work of Engwall (1978), schematises the individual, organisational, institutional and social levels of influence on editorial decision-making.

Figure 1: Levels of analysis for factors affecting editorial decision-making

The Hierarchy of Influences (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996) is a theoretical framework whose application transcends varying conceptualisations of journalism. The framework can be applied to civic journalism, convergence journalism and other conceptualisations of journalism because it focuses on the environment in which the journalism enterprise is undertaken, without necessarily taking a narrow view of the essential nature of journalism itself. The Hierarchy of Influences analyses the editorial decision-making environment on four levels: individual, organisational, institutional and social. The authors see the individual journalist as having internal conditioning forces, but not being totally free to be directed by them. Instead, the journalist must operate within the constraints of procedures established by his/her media organisation, which has its own interests that interact with other institutional forces. All of these actors are part of a wider social system. Therefore, their position is that a variety of forces operate simultaneously in any shaping of media content (Reese, 2001, p.179).

A number of quantitative studies have focused on external influences on journalists’ ethical decisions, including laws, organisational policies, informal work groups, the newsroom environment, competition, professional values (such as codes of ethics), news subjects and sources, advertisers, and the audience (Black, Barney, & Van Tubergen, 1979) (Singletary, Caudill, Caudill, & White, 1990), (Whitlow & Van Tubergen, 1978). However, Shoemaker and Vos posit that examining factors in isolation is not enough. The authors argue that conducting an analysis on four levels brings detail and nuance to explanations of editorial decision-making (p. 116).

Social Level of Analysis

The social level of analysis focuses on the role of social systems, social structures, ideologies and cultures in the choice and shaping of media messages. According to Murdock (1982), it is possible to understand the relations of power that organise the production of news in terms of two dimensions: the instrumental and the structural. The analysis of the instrumental dimension focuses on how power is expressed through intentional action, or on how people prevail upon others to align with their interests. Structural analysis, however, looks beyond intentional action to examine the interplay of national cultures, ideological forces, political systems and economic structures that influence editorial decision-making. Analysis of the structural dimension may focus, for example, on how corporate policies and operations are circumscribed by the general dynamics of media industries and capitalist economies.

Cultural studies scholars such as Turner (2002) have propagated the notion that ideology plays a significant role in the construction of media messages. Becker (1984) describes ideology as “an integrated set of frames of reference through which each of us sees the world and to which all of us adjust our actions” (p. 69). Ideology is closely associated with the Gramsci’s idea of hegemony (Gramsci, Hoare, & Nowell-Smith, 1971). For example, one hegemonic perspective of the media posits that the media serve as agents of the powerful, transmitting to their audience a false perception of reality in order to maintain the dominance of a powerful elite: “The press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates” (Siebert, Peterson, & Schramm, 1973). McChesney (2004) also argues that the ideology of economic elites shapes the news. It is worth noting that elite ideological dominance arises “as a property of the system of relations involved, rather than as the overt and intentional biases of individuals” (Hall, 1982, p. 95).

Figure 2: Media organisation in a field of social and institutional forces

Similarly, Sinclair (1906) states that “journalism is one of the devices whereby industrial autocracy keeps its control over political democracy”. Or, as Altschull (1984) puts it, “The content of the press is directly correlated with the interests of those who finance the press. The press is the piper, and the tune the piper plays is composed by those who pay the piper” (p. 254). The observations of Sinclair and Altschull, by establishing a direct link between the power structure of a society and its journalistic output, seem to align with McNair’s (2004) view that, journalism is “part of a stratified social system, part of the apparatus by which that system is presented to its members in terms with which they may be persuaded to live” (p. 46).

National cultures also influence journalism ethics (Weaver, 1998, pp. 469-73). Chang, Weng and Chen (1998) show how different social structures in China and the US shape notions of newsworthiness in different ways. Hallin and Mancini (2004) examined how eighteen countries fit into three political systems or social structures: a Mediterranean or polarised pluralist model; a North/Central European or democratic corporatist model; and a North Atlantic or liberal model. However, Shoemaker and Vos point out that “Although effects of social systems probably exist, there is little empirical evidence to support this. Because scholars stand within their own systems, they cannot escape and look at them objectively, a well-recognised shortcoming of systems or functional analysis” (p. 98). Insofar as practices differ from country to country, this study focuses exclusively on the factors shaping the practice of journalism in Trinidad and Tobago.

Institutional Level of Analysis

At this level of analysis, the media and the public are seen as two institutions among others in a given society.  The interaction between the public and media practitioners such as journalists has been the query of some research: Weaver and Wilhoit (1986), for example, found that the single most important factor contributing to work satisfaction of journalists was the possibility of helping people. They also found that the single most frequent source of feedback to journalists was from individual members of the audience. However, Fengler and Russ-Mohl (2008) seem to dismiss altogether the approach that portrays journalism as an idealistic form of public service. Fundamentally, the disagreement points to an underlying tension between economic and ethical concerns in editorial decision-making.

Advertisers, a third institution, are virtually a personification of the economic concerns of the institution of journalism. Economic pressure from advertisers takes a variety of forms including: withdrawing ads while citing disagreeable news content (Kaniss, 1991), organising advertiser boycotts, using control of retail spaces to hinder distribution, and establishing advertising policies which warn media in advance about the types of content that the advertiser finds problematic (Soley, 2002). Advertiser pressure can also be evidenced in the form of advertorials, quid pro quo agreements where news media commit to editorial space for advertisers based on the purchase of advertising space (Gossage, Rotzoll, Graham, & Mussay, 1986). Advertiser influence also comes in diverse covert and non-pressuring forms, such as providing information with an underlying promotional value or providing source material with embedded product placement. The consequences of advertiser pressure on editorial decision-making include: pulling of news items, buying of news items, dismissal of offending reporters, appearance of positive stories (sometimes called “puff stories”), self-censorship, and in some cases, the handing off of entire sections to the advertising department (Soley, 2002).

Interest groups, a fourth institution, are informal but organised groups, typically with a religious, occupational, political, civic or ethnic agenda, who seek to influence newspaper content in keeping with their interests. The influence of such groups may be difficult to single out because, as McQuail points out, it is “usually impossible to distinguish unacceptable pressure (or the act of yielding to it) from the general tendency of the media to try to please as many of their audiences (and advertisers) as possible and to avoid hurting minorities or encouraging antisocial activities” (p. 290).

People and organisations that routinely supply journalists with ideas, quotes and information for potential news stories are known collectively as source media, a fifth identifiable institution. Source media, which include the police, governments, public relations firms, whistleblowers, event promoters and news agencies, are another key institution with power to influence the news agenda. Some commentators (Reese & Ballinger, 2001) have found that the most common types of sources cited are institutional spokespersons, experts and other journalists. They remark that by depending too heavily on a common and often narrow network of sources, “the news media contribute to a systematic convergence on the conventional wisdom, the largely unquestioned consensus views held by journalists, power-holders and many audience members” (p. 85). According to McQuail (2010), “The practice of validating news reports by reference to dependable sources generally gives weight to established authority and conventional wisdom. This is an almost inevitable form of unintended bias in mainstream news media but it can end up as a consistent ideological bias, concealed behind the mask of objectivity” (p. 322).

For this reason, some theorists have emphasised the need for journalists to assess sources not just in terms of credibility but also in terms of motive: “The journalist’s main goal is to provide the public with information. If the source’s interest is not identical to the public interest, then the duty of the ethical journalist is to determine where the two diverge”(Klaidman & Beauchamp, 1987, p. 152). Theorists point out that sources typically have their own agenda (Sanders, 2003, p. 107) and that, at times, the informational purposes of source media may be incongruent with the needs of journalists (Randall, 2000, p. 53).

Organisational Level of Analysis

The organisational level of analysis examines operational factors such as organisational socialisation, management styles and corporate codes of ethics, all of which have the potential to influence journalists’ editorial decision-making. According to Randall:

Industry “culture is like a trade secret handed down from master to apprentice—a constantly evolving (or degenerating) received professional wisdom…It also creates the moral atmosphere of a paper and is thus far more responsible for the ethics that are in daily use on a paper than any theoretical commandments (p. 9)

Whether by informal or formal means, media organisations encourage or enforce practices that could affect journalists’ publishing decisions. According to one early study by Breed (1955) detailing the informal socialising mechanisms by which new journalists were acculturated, young reporters learn organisational policy through a range of informal interactions, such as informal gossip with colleagues, and sitting in on editorial conferences. An alternative newsroom management style could stress top-down control, with componential division of work and centrally located gatekeepers who have significant influence over the development of organisational policies that could influence journalists’ publishing decisions to varying degrees.

Many individual media organisations have also developed customised and formalised codes of ethics, which they use to assist journalists to make editorial decisions according to the ethical standards of the profession. Journalists themselves have also formed professional associations, some of which have attempted to distil the ethical principles that should govern their behaviour. For example, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics declares four macro-principles: seek truth and report it; minimise harm, act independently; and be accountable. However, as suggested by Christians and Cooper (2009), formalised codes may not adequately address ethical issues because they cannot be enforced and because they are susceptible to misinterpretation. In addition, the authors point out, the practice of journalism ethics presents a dilemma because while ethics entails careful time-consuming deliberations, journalism demands fast pragmatic decisions.

Individual Level of Analysis

Shoemaker and Vos’ individual level of analysis focuses on how journalists’ editorial decisions are affected by internal conditioning forces, such as moral development, professional role conception, religion and education. Swain (1978) reminds us that “the reader has little way of knowing to what degree a reporter is affected in his work by personal philosophies or beliefs” (p. 6). Figdor (2010) suggests that, for precisely this reason, journalists have an ethical duty to maintain a sceptical awareness of their own personal biases and follow practices designed to prevent those biases from distorting their articles and broadcasts. According to Figdor, “belief in the inevitability of bias turns the need for epistemic responsibility among those shaping public discourse into a private virtue” (p. 20). Some theorists, such as Gans (1979), agree that moral development is a significant conditioning force in shaping editorial decision-making. Others, such as Shoemaker and Reese, have determined that the evidence relating to the influence of personal beliefs is inconclusive, and have concluded that the relation between moral development and ethical decision-making is, therefore, at best variable.

An early study by Kohlberg (1963) found that moral development in people tends to follow an invariant sequence of six stages. Culbertson (1983) found that activist journalists bordered on Kohlberg’s sixth stage of moral development because they demonstrated concern for universal ethical principles. Applying the moral development theories of Kohlberg, Piaget (1965) and Rest (1979) to the practice of journalism, Coleman and Wilkins (2004) adapted a quantitative instrument called the Defining Issues Test (DIT) to examine the ethical operations of professional journalists. The DIT poses six ethical dilemmas and asks respondents to rank twelve statements after each dilemma, according to how important each was in making a decision. Next, participants rank their top four statements from the twelve. From the ratings and rankings, a score is calculated that reflects the relative importance the person gave to principled considerations. The DIT can be modified to include two domain-specific dilemmas since domain-specific stories can be more predictive of behaviour. Coleman and Wilkins (2002) found that journalists showed higher levels of moral development than many other professionals (p. 11).

How individual journalists perceive their professional roles also affects their editorial decision-making. An early study by Cohen (1963) identified professional role conceptions as either neutral (passively soaking up the news of the day) or participatory (actively ferreting out truth). Weaver and Wilhoit (1986) and Culbertson (1983) identified four roles: disseminators who select regularly and readily available information and get it out to the largest possible public quickly; interpreters who make sense of complex issues by analysing and interpreting significant amounts of information; adversarials who seek out stories about misdeeds of prominent or powerful government or business figures; and populist mobilisers who highlight community-oriented call-to-action stories. The significance of professional role conceptions is not universally acknowledged. In fact some critics (Knight, Geuze, & Gerlis, 2008), object to the claim that journalism is a profession at all, citing the low public esteem for and trust in journalists and their susceptibility to commercial and political propaganda.

Apart from professional role conceptions, other significant conditioning forces that have been identified include personality (Henningham, 1997) and background (Voakes & Wilhoit, 2007). The effect of other variables, such as ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, education, religion and class, on the production of news content has also been studied, with partial success. Figdor (2010) acknowledges that more work is required in these areas: “social cognitive psychological research is urgently needed to identify the sorts of personal values that may influence editorial judgments, the sorts of judgments they may influence, and the circumstances in which such influence is likely to occur” (p. 28).

While reporters may be autonomous moral agents making editorial decisions about subjective journalistic truth, their publishing decisions are made in the context of an organisation that exists in a wider society. Black, Steele and Barney (1999) assert that “it is perfectly reasonable for journalists to maintain enough independence to remain free from external and internal pressures that dilute truthtelling enterprise, while simultaneously recognizing that as professionals we are accountable to our readers, listeners, viewers and each other” (p. 29).

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