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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The social production of news Campbell, Brian Gordon


This study consists of two main parts: first, a review and assessment of the literature of the mass media; and secondly, the presentation and analysis of the results of three months' fieldwork in a local television news and public affairs department. Development of research proceeded in a dialectical fashion. The initial literature reviewed was oriented to the completion of the field-work, while questions raised in the fieldwork necessitated more thorough study of the historical, political and economic basis of news production. Examination of literature in the sociology of communications was, for the most part, found to be lacking, because its orientation was to discovering the responses of an atomized audience to the media, rather then to the way program decisions are made, and the basis for those decisions. A brief review is made of the literature on content analysis of the media, and power structure research, both of which are viewed as static analyses which cannot explain the dynamics of media operations. Two major and interrelated functions of the media are developed as key explanations of the role of the media, its economic and ideological functions. Both are understood to be an integral part of the larger capitalist economic system. The function of news has two parts. First, the local station is a commercial organization which makes its decisions on the basis of profitability. The station's source of revenue is selling audiences to advertisers. For this reason, program decisions reflect the concern of gaining or maintaining the largest possible audiences over the entire television schedule. Secondly, television advertising encourages consumption, and this helps to reduce the time of the circulation of capital from product back into capital, and the cost for the producers. The second major function of television is the maintenance of the ideological hegemony of capitalism. Television, and television news programs accomplish this in two basic ways, through the reinforcement of existing conceptions of the world, and through the omission of any competing interpretations of social reality and the maintenance of strict parameters on debate. Field Fieldwork was conducted previous to much of this analysis and questions raised resulted in a return to the data. Focus of the research was to discover the social organization in the news room that resulted in the production of news. The main focus of news room activities was to filling the time allotted for the news and public affairs program. One of the most important contributions of this paper is a restatement of the fact that the economic imperatives of the employer become the central demand characteristics for the employee. News room workers had no choice but to fill the time allotted, and to fill it successfully, i.e. to attract a large audience. Because of the organizational basis of news selection, which included such factors as budget demands, staff availability, cost of film, newsmen were found to have only the vaguest idea of what it is that constitutes the news. The only general area of agreement was for 'spot' or spectacular news items, such as fires, robberies and major disasters. Sources of news items for televisions were found to be restricted, with few stations having any independent research capacity and a heavy reliance being placed on other media for news ideas and background. As a result, television does not offer another source of news, but rather the same news in a different medium. An important element in making news comprehensible to an audience, and to make up for television's inability to be present when most stories actually occur, is the construction of news items either through rehearsal of events which are pre-planned, or the re-construction of events which have already occurred or did not come off as anticipated. The conclusion of this study is that the social production of news is shaped by the economic imperatives of the commercial stations. These imperatives are those of the market place and the maximization of profit, which is also the base from which the ideological hegemony of capitalism flows. These two elements, operating at different but inter-related levels, underly news production, which is based on the common sense or vague understanding of these phenomena, and encourages the belief in the 'truth' of the news.

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