Sunday, October 21, 2007

Funday Framing Foxtacular!

Back in the days before newsroom culture got the attention of real sociologists, like Herbert Gans and Gaye Tuchman, we had to grow our own. Lots of the early work was done by old news hands, generally under the influence of the Chicago school, who went to PhD camp and came back to try to explain to the outside world what sorts of things went on between the occurrence of "news" and its appearance on newspaper pages. And lots of it holds up well today -- David Whyte's "The Gate Keeper," for example, and Warren Breed's "Social Control in the Newsroom," to which we turn for today's lesson.

When you look at how "bias" can be expected to filter down from the boardroom to what you see or read, it's tempting to think of a diabolical publisher with his (for male is what he almost always is) finger in every decision and his touch on every headline. Fat chance. Few publishers can write even one headline,* let alone the dozens a rimster will knock out in a shift, and they have other stuff to do besides intervening in the multiple scores of decisions made around the newsroom.

More to the point, as Breed** explains in detail, intervention isn't necessary. Journalists learn what's supposed to go in the paper -- what "news" looks and sounds like, and how "policy" shapes its presence or absence, at their particular shops -- through a complex system of nods, nudges, winks, and implications. So if your question is "Wow, did Murdoch himself order that Hillary hed onto the front page this morning?" the answer is "No. Inept, patently fabricated stories get to the Fox front page of their own accord!" Staffers learn by imitation. They learn by watching news budget meetings -- not because the policy line is laid down there, but because it's implied in the discussions of "reliability of information, newsworthiness, possible 'angles' and other news tactics" (1955, p. 329). They learn by seeing what gets in and what doesn't. Murdoch can sleep in on Sundays because the folks unlucky or junior enough to draw that shift know what looks like news through Fox-colored glasses.

In other words, it didn't take much thought for someone to green-light the Hillary story mentioned here. It's somebody else's, so we can say "Report says" instead of "We say." It has that respectable international patina (despite the occasional charming tendency of the British press to, oh, make stuff up when there's nothing interesting to report). And it's "campaign" news -- or at least, it looks enough like campaign news to get past the checkpoint.

Needless to say, "Report: Dumped Cat Could Come Back to Haunt Hillary Clinton Campaign" is a crock from start to finish. There is no "report." There's a commentary in the Sunday Times, a Murdoch property that has longer sentences and fewer Page Three Girls than the Sun. The "some" who "believe" the Socks tale could thwart Clinton don't exist; that's spun from one commentary in the Atlantic. Mostly, the Times article used some rented snark to hang a week's worth of anti-Hillary laundry. Somebody at Fox has learned the lessons well.

* Rolfe Neill of Charlotte, whom Charles Kuralt pointed out in one of his books as the guy who taught him how to draw a page, is an honorable exception.
** Breed, W. (1955). Social control in the newsroom: A functional analysis. Social Forces, 33, 326-335.

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