Number 536 August 27, 2013

This Week: Media Setting the Agenda

"Quote" of the Week: "In Order for Crude Oil Production to Grow"
Setting the Agenda: Gathering News, Delivering News

To read this issue of Nygaard Notes in PDF format, click here.


This issue is "Part Two" (although I'm not calling it that) of the "Labeling the Media" article that I ran in the last issue. If you recall, I suggested that what many of us refer to as "The Media" might better be called The Mainstream Corporate For-Profit Bound Agenda-Setting Media. This week I look at that last adjective: "Agenda-Setting," and exactly how it is that what seems to be a decentralized, "independent" media system is really controlled by a relative few at the top. This is a complicated system, which I guess is why I think we need a lot of adjectives to begin to describe it.

Welcome to the new readers this week. Let me know what you think!



"Quote" of the Week: "In Order for Crude Oil Production to Grow..."

In March of this year the US State Department issued a report on the environmental impact of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport very dirty "tar sands" oil from Canada and the northern United States down to the Gulf of Mexico. (Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil. For more, visit the DeSmogBlog.

The Report claimed that "approval or denial of the proposed Project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area. [...] Spills associated with the proposed Project that enter the environment are expected to be rare and relatively small." The Report was widely seen as making it easier for Prez Obama to approve the project, since he has said that he won't give the go-ahead unless he is convinced that the Pipeline "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

The Canadian government needs and wants US approval, so they officially claim that the Keystone XL pipeline has nothing to do with the development of the tar sands oil fields.

Now, buried on page 3 of the Business Section of the August 26th New York Times we find (what should be) a major article headlined, "Canadian Documents Suggest Shift on Pipeline." The story is that a Canadian non-profit has gotten its hands on some notes from the Canadian natural resources ministry, and the notes state their actual position on the pipeline, which is not the same as their official position. The document states the Ministry's position (and this is the "Quote" of the Week):

"In order for crude oil production to grow, the North American pipeline network must be expanded through initiatives, such as the Keystone XL Pipeline project."

The Times characterizes this as evidence of an "apparent change in Canada's position." Well, maybe it's a "change," and maybe it's a public relations lie. But since the NY Times is the only outlet in the U.S. to even mention this story, there will likely be little political impact felt from what should be a blockbuster story.

The media context in which this occurs, and which virtually guarantees that distorted journalism and missing journalism has come to be the norm in this country, is the subject of this "double issue" of Nygaard Notes.

A good place to start (not the only place!) when exploring resistance to all of this environmental madness is the Indigenous Environmental Network. Go to their page called "Indigenous Resistance ~ KXL/Tar Sands."


Setting the Agenda: Gathering News, Delivering News

We have to avoid thinking that the Propaganda function of Big Media is the result of some sort of conspiracy. I hope this essay will explain why.

In the 21st-Century news and information environment, a very small number of organizations have the ability to gather news and distribute it. The large majority of news outlets therefore depend upon these organizations to supply most news of the world beyond the local or regional areas that they serve. Through their routine decisions about what is newsworthy and why, these large organizations set the "news agenda" for the entire nation.

To understand the importance of the Agenda-Setting function of the media system, we begin by asking "Who generates our news?" That is, where does our daily news come from? The short answer is, "Fewer and fewer sources that are bigger and bigger."

The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism 2013 report "The State of the News Media" has documented the dramatic decline in recent years in the resources devoted to journalism in the United States. In the Report appears a section called "Newspapers: Stabilizing, but Still Threatened," in which it is reported that, while the decade-long shrinking of the journalistic workforce has slowed, "the most basic indicators" of the newspaper industry "have not turned around." The industry is "still dealing with difficult economic realities" and newspapers "continue to reduce traditional newsroom staff." The absolute numbers are stark: "Signs of the shrinking reporting power are documented throughout this year's report. Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978."

As a result, the national and international news that is presented to the people of the United States in the 21st Century is gathered by a relatively small number of reporters, with editing done by an even smaller number of editors. When it comes to international reporting, in the United States we now have a total of 14 news organizations that can claim more than a token overseas presence. The list of U.S. news organizations with more than one "foreign bureau" (based on research by The American Journalism Review, or AJR, in 2011) includes: The Christian Science Monitor (with 7 bureaus), Los Angeles Times (13); McClatchy (4); New York Times (24); USA Today (5); Wall Street Journal (35); Washington Post (17); NBC (14); ABC (19); CNN (33); FOX (6); and NPR (17). ("CBS declined to provide any information," says AJR.) This list of "foreign bureaus" is a bit misleading, since some of the "bureaus" are really just what is called an "editorial presence," which "means that the organization has at least one representative, who may be a staffer, on contract or a freelancer." (These are the latest numbers available; the situation may well be worse by now.)

The Associated Press and Bloomberg News, says AJR, "maintain large global staffs (AP has 3,700 employees working in 304 locations in 116 countries; 2,400 are newsgatherers)." Bloomberg News has a "global staff of more than 2,300 in 146 bureaus (101 are foreign) in 72 countries." In other words, roughly 15 percent of all the employees in the news business in the United States are in the employ of just two organizations, each with their own particular priorities and systems, which are enforced by their own editors. In the case of the Associated Press, the stories of all of 2,400 "newsgatherers" are run through just "six international regional editing hubs."

There are a few other news organizations that have the power to produce first-hand accounts of news events in far-flung places, and their stories are sometimes picked up by U.S. news outlets. These include the Thomson Reuters news service, Agence France-Presse, and the British Broadcasting Service (BBC).

Reporting of news from overseas is not the only thing that is dominated by the largest players. Judging by the numbers, reporting on the foreign operations of our own government—like the foreign countries in which they operate—is a relatively low priority for the monopolistic media. In a 2010 report from AJR called "Retreating From the World," former Knight Ridder and Philadelphia Enquirer reporter Jodi Enda reports that "The number of newspapers and newspaper chains covering the State Department has shrunk dramatically since 2003, the last time AJR conducted its foreign reporting survey. Today just six newspaper reporters spend at least half of their time covering foreign affairs and the State Department, compared with 13 seven years ago." And the resulting ignorance of the United States behavior in the world leaves USAmericans scratching their heads in bewilderment when people in other parts of the world express hostility—or hatred—towards our country. And mass ignorance in this realm, as in any realm, makes democratic input into our nation's foreign policy less likely and, when attempted, less informed. Entrance Stage Right: The Tea Party.

The picture is much the same when it comes to the job of supplying news from inside the United States to the part of the population that does not live in Washington or New York. AJR reported in 2009 that "many local newspapers and newspaper companies are backing away from Washington coverage or dropping it altogether. Most cite the newspaper business' daunting financial problems as the reason. 'The decision to close the Washington bureau was driven by economic considerations,' says Drew Schlosberg, community and public relations director for the [San Diego] Union-Tribune." Adds AJR, "As newspapers grapple with the ever-growing pressure to cut costs, more and more of them come to view Washington bureaus as luxuries they simply cannot afford. During the last three years, newspapers . . . have eliminated more than 40 Washington regional reporter positions through layoffs, buyouts or attrition."

The importance of these lost resources is explained by Enda:

"As daily newspapers continue to shed Washington bureaus and severely slash their staffs, fewer reporters than ever are serving as watchdogs of the federal government. Rare is the reporter who is assigned to cover one of the many federal departments, agencies or bureaus that are not part of the daily news cycle. Even if they are large, even if they are central to how Americans live their lives, most parts of the federal government—the very offices that write the rules and execute the decisions of Congress and the president—remain uncovered or undercovered by the mainstream media. Consider that not one newspaper has a reporter who works in the newsroom of the Department of Agriculture, which, with a staff of 104,000, is one of the government's largest employers. Trade publications and bloggers pick up a bit of the slack but have neither the audience nor the impact of more traditional media outlets."

As budgets tighten throughout the industry, the power of the largest corporate news organizations becomes proportionally greater. Due to their scale and profitability, the large news corporations are the only ones who have the resources to simply go out and get stories of national and international significance. That is, they are the ones who have far-flung bureaus, large reporting and editing staffs, and the revenue to support them. They can also afford to purchase the work of on-the-ground local freelancers, known as "stringers," all over the world. The provincial, or regional, news organizations that serve the smaller cities and rural areas generally lack the resources to investigate the world outside of their regions, even if they wanted to.

Since the large news corporations are the only ones with the power to do the investigating and researching necessary to produce news from around the nation and around the world, the provincial news outlets must rely on them for much of their reporting on national and international issues. The power to set the news agenda, or that part of it that goes beyond items of local and regional interest, is thus concentrated in the hands of a very few number of news organizations, and thus the agenda becomes by default more or less universal. On the day I am writing these words, for instance, all of the non-local stories in my local daily newspaper, the Star Tribune, come either from the Associated Press, the New York Times, or the Washington Post.

"Agenda," in this context, refers not only to what is covered and what is not, but also to the general framing of issues that results from the decisions on what I call the media's PET (for Placement, Emphasis, and Tone) of the stories that do get produced. That is, not only does an ever-smaller, more elite press corps decide what is important and what is not. They also decide, when reporting on any given subject, what type of story it is (via placement), which aspects of a story are newsworthy (via emphasis), and even how we should feel and react to the story (via tone). All of these judgements arise from and reflect sets of values. When these judgements are disseminated widely throughout the media system, the process serves to normalize the values that shaped them.

In addition to monopolizing the news agenda through their ability to generate original news stories, the media behemoths also retain the power, through their syndication services and "content licensing" capabilities, to distribute to a wide audience the stories that they produce. This ability to deliver a story to a mass audience—that is, wide distribution—is beyond the capacity of most local and regional newspapers, even if they had the resources to produce a story that is national in scope. Again, see your own local newspaper for evidence.

Regressing With The Internet

Contrary to popular belief, this concentration of news sources has become even more pronounced in the Internet era.

The journalist and media analyst David Sirota was interviewed on Counterspin, the radio program of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, on August 31, 2012. He explained concisely how the concentration of the power to generate news affects the news agenda. Sirota was asked by the host to comment on the power that comes with owning a newspaper, even in the age of the Internet, social media, blogs, etc. Said the interviewer, "Even with all these voices, [owning a newspaper] still [provides] this enormous megaphone in a city." Sirota replied:

"Absolutely, and I think this is another untold story. . . The idea is that newspapers—yes, they are losing revenue, and they are losing circulation, and they are seeing newsroom cuts. But radio stations and television stations, for instance, have traditionally had fewer reporters than newspapers, and they've seen their own cuts.

"So, what you've seen is the pyramid of news built on fewer and fewer news sources, even though you have more and more news outlets. So just because you may have a prevalence of news outlets—websites, radio stations, television stations, newspapers, magazines—doesn't mean that the original news isn't being built off of a smaller and smaller handful of news sources. Because of what has happened, the remaining newspapers arguably have more power to shape news coverage today, because more news content that's out there among the proliferation of other news outlets, is based more and more off their content. Because they are the organizations that still have the largest number of journalists reporting original news.

"So, in other words, the non-newspaper media outlets are serving, in a sense, simply as a huge amplifier for the fewer and fewer newspapers that are reporting actual news. Which, of course, then, gives monopoly newspaper owners an even bigger amount of power over what is news and what's not news. [Emphasis added by Nygaard.]

And, again, it's not just the power to decide what is news and what's not news. It's also the power to shape our thinking about the news that is reported through the various editorial decisions that are carried out in newsroom cultures that are accountable to ever-smaller numbers of ever-wealthier owners.

In July 2011 the Federal Communications Commission released a report entitled "The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age." In it appeared an essay called "The Media Food Chain and the Functions of Journalism," which emphasized that newspapers have been the media organizations that "tended to do the majority of accountability reporting." (Another term for "accountability reporting" is "investigative reporting," the importance of which is what most people understand to be what makes "the press" deserving of constitutional protection.) The report points out that, historically, "Newspapers tended to do the majority of accountability reporting. Because of the size of their staffs, the mobility of their reporters, and the many column inches they could dedicate to news, they could devote more time and resources to labor- and time-intensive projects, sustain ongoing beat reporting, and offer more in-depth explanation and analysis of complex issues."

Adds the report, "In terms of accountability journalism, television typically did not have sufficient staff to break as many stories as newspapers did," and "Radio's role has been similar to TV's in the sense that it has usually amplified more than it has initiated original journalism."

The job of producing original journalism—or "accountability reporting" or "investigative reporting"—thus falls to newspapers which, as an industry, are shrinking rapidly. The latest figures has the newspaper industry with "38,000 full-time professional editorial employees" which, as mentioned above, is the lowest level in 35 years. The reduced resources allotted by newspapers to doing journalism has in turn reduced their capacity to do the newsgathering that only they are capable of doing. "In theory, TV and radio could have filled the vacuum left by newspapers," the FCC report tells us, "but our research indicates that they are not doing that."

As journalism scholar Ben Bagdikian notes in his book The New Media Monopoly, "Ironically, the daily paper's long, detailed stories are the basis for most reporting in radio and television, which specialize in brief items. . . The newspaper might provide within its details tidbits used by broadcasters. Using the newspapers as source material permits local station owners to have much smaller news staffs than do newspapers." The result is that "the contraction of newspapers not only affects their readers, but the whole information food chain."

One of the ways the "information food chain" is affected is as mentioned above: Much more of the fishing for stories is done by the big fish in the media world, the Washington Posts and the NBCs, who then "feed" the smaller fish. But that may not be the worst of it, as the smaller fish don't get all of their news from bigger media fish. Some of the feeding is done directly by powerful non-media institutions, whether they be government, other corporations, or public relations professionals. Here's how the process is described in "The Media Food Chain and the Functions of Journalism":

"Newspapers, local TV stations, and local radio stations employ fewer reporters now than they used to, and many of those that have survived have become more like 1930s wire service reporters—filing rapidly and frequently, doing fewer interviews, and spending less time pressing for information. This has resulted in a shift in the balance of power—away from citizens, toward powerful institutions. The watchdog reporter hates a press release; the busy reporter often loves it. . . .

"People are naturally inclined to withhold information that makes them look bad. This is true for government, corporations, labor unions, universities, and any other type of institution, whether the information is in the form of handwritten scrawl on paper documents or digits in databases. Usually, dirty secrets must be 'found out'—no easy task—and the people who are most likely to have the time, independence, and skills for the job are full-time professionals..." [Emphasis added by Nygaard.]

"... [O]ur on-the-ground research turned up numerous examples of a . . . power shift, away from citizens and toward institutions. Since surveys reveal that Americans hold reporters in low esteem—and may associate them with rich and powerful TV personalities—some may be skeptical about the notion that a decline in the number of journalists could shift control away from citizens and toward the powerful. But this is what we have concluded. Reporters who have less time per story become more reliant on news doled out by press release or official statement, which means that they report the news powerful institutions want us to know rather than what has been concealed. That is a power shift." [Emphasis in original.]

The Report then quotes a 2010 study by the Pew Center, "which concluded that governmental institutions, increasingly, were driving stories rather than reporters":

"As news is posted faster, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important. We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such . . . Government, at least in this study, initiates most of the news. In the detailed examination of six major storylines, 63% of the stories were initiated by government officials, led first of all by the police. Another 14% came from the press. Interest group figures made up most of the rest."

There is no short and easy way to refer to "The Media" that makes it clear that we are talking not about organizations like the Waseca County News (my home-town paper), but rather about a set of institutional entities exemplified by such organizations The New York Times and the Washington Post. There are any number of short, entertaining, and colorful adjectives that one might use in the privacy of one's own home to describe the Media, but given that "confidence in the Press" reached "an all-time low of 8.5% in 2008," it's likely that most of them are not suitable for publication.

By stringing together the lengthy group of adjectives that I'm suggesting—Mainstream, Corporate, For-Profit, Bound, and Agenda-Setting—we are able to see more clearly that, when talking about The Media, there is not a single factor that defines the complex system, but rather an interplay between numerous factors. An awareness of this interplay helps to keep us on the path of thinking in a systems way. And that, in turn, keeps us in mind of another reason to think in terms of this long group of adjectives instead of relying on a single one: it helps us remember that our assessment of a media source is not an "either/or" proposition, since "the system" is different than any particular part of that system.

So, for instance, when we get lazy and refer to The Media as The Corporate Media, then we have a tendency to think, first of all, that all non-corporate media are superior in every way. That's not the case; much useful information can be found in media that is certainly "corporate."

Likewise with "mainstream." Just because something is not readily available to every casual reader or viewer does not make it "better" than what we find in the popular media. And vice versa: just because an outlet is obscure and read by few people is not a badge of honor. Maybe it's not in the mainstream because it's a lousy information source.

Even strung together, these adjectives are inadequate in fully describing the system we are calling The Media. Yes, it's "Corporate," but it's more than that. Yes, it's "Mainstream," but it's more than that. Yes, it's "For Profit," but it's more than that. Yes, it's "Bound," but it's more than that. Yes, it sets the agenda, but it's more than that, too.

In and of themselves none of these factors tell us what we need to know about the nature of the news that we can expect from any of the large media outlets that dominate the media portion of our information system. But, taken together and understood as making up the "organizing principles" of that system, we begin to get a glimpse of the context in which that system does its work. And in the process we begin to move away from thinking that we know what "makes" it behave as it does. We stop looking for a single cause for what we see, because we have begun to see it as a system.

So it's true that how we name things is important. The Mainstream Corporate For-Profit Bound Agenda-Setting Media? Applying a complex name to a complex, and dynamic, and ever-evolving system helps us stop thinking in terms of a simple conspiracy, and begin to develop dynamic, complex, ever-evolving plans to change a system that limits our imaginations in so many ways.