The sad truths about news

News - News Culture. First Edition
May 26, 2000

First the bad news. These volumes make for very depressing reading. Either our news media have degenerated into vehicles for the trivial, the self-serving and the impossibly depraved; or, if you want to look on the bright side, they have not really deteriorated at all, because they have always been just another mechanism of socio-political control.

Once you accept these sad alternatives, things begin to look up. Indispensable for both undergraduates and inquiring practitioners, News: A Reader is a comprehensive introduction to the major themes and authorities, balancing classic texts by giants such as Walter Lippmann and Herbert J. Gans with more recent scholars from both sides of the Atlantic.

The assumption that American and British news media dominate world dissemination is amply justified, particularly in Jeremy Tunstall's incisive analysis. Offering erudite overviews to each section, the editor juxtaposes the standard influences - Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky on news as propaganda, Stuart Hall et al on news as social production, Tod Gitlin's fatalistic analysis of hegemonic discourse - with more inclusive interpretations such as Philip Schlesinger and Howard Tumber's celebrated extract "Reporting crime".

Focusing on news values and news production, the collection contains little audience or reader analysis. This is where Stuart Allen comes into his own. Ideal for first-year undergraduates, his News Culture is a useful digest of current approaches to journalism studies, though with a few regrettable lapses. Incredibly, his history of BBC radio news bypasses the second world war. Discussing the employment of women in journalism, he neglects to mention the two female editors of national newspapers, or the proliferation of women senior executives in news organisations.

He does, however, incorporate the role of the consumer. Eschewing the more routine assumption of a gullible, ignorant public, vulnerable to the manipulative wiles of the political oligarchy, Allen cheerfully embraces the interactive nature of the media. He is less reliable on the future of news, skirting the issues that News: A Reader considers pivotal: global ownership and the impact of new technologies. Particularly powerful in Tumber's collection is Anthony Sampson's plea for an end to foreign ownership in the interests of a responsible press.

But Sampson is a journalist. His passionate polemic contrasts sharply with the tone of both books, which, preoccupied with the larger picture, fail to recognise the occasional triumphs of the press or the achievements of individual journalists. If academics understood journalists better they might even learn something from them.

First, immediacy. Disappointingly, neither work includes recent events that have challenged news reporting: the death of Princess Diana, the Jonathan Aitken exposure, the war in Kosovo, or the Stephen Lawrence affair. Second, effective opposition. Both books present the media as a tool of the establishment rather than its scourge. But this postmodern despair at the futility of action is arguably more convenient to the status quo than all those self-deluded journalists, driven by the belief that they can make a difference.

Finally, style. The theorists may be dazzlingly accurate in their pinpointing of journalism as the axis through which the ruling ideology negotiates its hegemonic dominance by subverting the narrativisation of meaning. But at least journalists write short sentences.

Sally Feldman is dean of the school of media, London College of Printing.

News: A Reader. First Edition

Editor - Howard Tumber
ISBN - 0 19 874231 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £16.99
Pages - 408

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