Theories of the news

by Mariko Tomita and Carl Bybee

from Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 77-83
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1989, 2006


Item One:

Soon the Los Angeles Times will publish a new section called "Corporate News." No, this will not have more news about corporations. Corporations will write the news about themselves and about anything else they want to comment on. It will only look like the Los Angeles Times' news format.

Such a statement used to be called a press release. Corporations issue press releases to impose the corporation's own point of view on an event. However, press releases are chancy, because the media might not run them or might edit out the corporate view. "Corporate News" will provide corporations a sure thing, because the corporation will pay for the space to run the release exactly as they have written it.

Item Two:

We read about Item One in the April 23, 1988, edition of the Wall Street Journal. About five years ago a study published in the Columbia Journalism Review revealed that almost 50% of all the news in the Wall Street Journal, news that the paper presented as news, had been initiated by a press release. In fact, often times the Wall Street Journal would print a story with a staff reporter's byline over a word-for-word copy of a press release — making the press release appear as staff had gathered the news.

Item Three:

By 1960, local newspaper competition had disappeared from 97% of U.S. cities.

Item Four:

In 1981 Ben Bagthkian calculated, in his book, The Media Monopoly, that forty-six corporations controlled the majority of all major U.S. media. In his 1987 edition he calculates that this concentration has accelerated to the point where now only 29 corporations control the majority of major U.S. media.

Item Five:

Last year CBS News unveiled a new promotional campaign. In advertisements, they'll try to sell viewers on their news' accuracy and credibility.


The items could go on and on. But what does it mean? Our argument is this: For the last fifty years the concept of objectivity has performed a Herculean task — to make it seem reasonable that the media institutions promote free speech at the same time that they try to maximize economic profits. That is, the news media's commitment to objectivity has served as the force field separating news work from money making. In addition, the news media have used "objectivity" to shield them from the influence of the state and other sources of power.

However, as these items indicate, U.S. journalism is approaching a state of crisis. The commoditization of news has become more intense, and that commoditization has precipitated a legitimacy crisis. The news media sell news. If news more and more resembles advertising, the news media have nothing left to sell. And if the news no longer has the guise of objectivity, then corporate U.S.A. would lose its mystified front for presenting its version of reality as all reality. Increasingly people recognize that neither the force field nor the shield ever existed.

The time is ripe to rethink the meaning of news. In fact, the news media have never been objective. Objectivity is impossible. Only a naive theory can interpret news as striving for objective, unbiased accounts of socially important events. Such a theory would cover up the degree to which news reality is a shaped reality — not always directly or intentionally, not always simply — but shaped to privilege the views of the powers that be.

The theory of news presented in journalism textbooks, sold to as by institutions of corporate journalism, and romanticized in news films like BROADCAST NEWS, FRONT PAGE, and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN must be critically reassessed. We must look at news within the larger context of how knowledge is produced and distributed. This discussion proposes a critical theory of news. Here we wish to focus on how journalistic practice constructs a kind of knowledge which supports and sustains the hegemonic ideology of international capitalism.

In a second installment of this article, forthcoming in JUMP CUT, we will apply this critical theory of news to the special case of international news. The news' manipulative power rests in its ability to recast events in common sense terms, that is, in terms of the hegemonic or dominant view.

In this way, news about the U.S. economy gets told from a point of view, which, for example, assumes that Japan has an unfair trade advantage. The management crisis in U.S. industry and the internationalization of capitalism are not mentioned or if mentioned, not explored in stories about "imports." Such major economic structures, looked at on an international scale, never get presented as the backdrop against which news is framed. Instead, hegemonic assumptions about the decline in certain U.S. industries create a point of view while the assumptions remain mostly hidden. We have chosen foreign news for a representative critical textual analysis because the very unavailability of first hand knowledge about other cultures makes readers and viewers particularly susceptible to these kinds of implicit constructions as they watch "international" news.

We will make our argument for a critical theory of news in three parts. First we will lay a conceptual groundwork by briefly reviewing several theories of power, which provide the context for a critical theory of news. Then we will briefly examine the relationship between theories of power and theories of mass communication. Finally we will present the special case of news within a larger critical theory of mass communication.


A one-dimensional view of power focuses on the visible exercise of power. It implies that power is wielded in a sportsmanlike way. Nothing under the table. If you don't want toxic wastes dumped in your backyard, form a neighborhood organization and lobby your city council, the state and/or the federal government. Toxic Waste Inc. can do the same. The conflict becomes open and clear with a definite point of visible contention.

This notion of power has close ties to a pluralist theory of society — the dominant theory of society in our education system, and the dominant myth about how our society works that is woven into presidential speeches, television sit-coms, corporate advertising, and the evening news. Political sociologist Albert Szymanski has summed up that position this way:

"Pluralism, although it stresses the group rather than the individual, argues that the state in capitalist society is authentically democratic since 1) the state's policies derive from interaction among society's constituent groups, to which all people belong; 2) the groups are internally democratic, or at least as "voluntary associations" they accurately reflect their members' interests and concerns; and 3) the balance among these forces, reflected in state policy, essentially represents a fair and true equilibrium among all the various interest groups, with no great consistent bias in any direction." (1978, p. 4)

Steven Lukes (1974) discusses a three-dimensional theory of power, which corrects such a Pollyanna view. To the one-dimensional view of power, Lukes adds a second dimension, which recognizes that power often has a hidden face. Power also gets exercised by leaders' doing nothing or by misdirecting public attention. A citizens' group acting to challenge a toxic waste dump may find that they run into a seemingly endless chain of hearings and postponements requiring them to write and rewrite reports, file and refile petitions. They may find that the legal system has a structural bias which passively operates against them. Their resources dwindle, so they give up. Or they may give up because they later think that fighting drug abuse in their community is a more important problem.

While this view comes closer to describing power relationships as we experience them, Lukes proceeds to argue that the two-dimensional view still misses a complete understanding of power. It still just focuses on actual observable conflict. In the third dimension of power analyzed by Lukes (strongly influenced by the work of Antonio Gramsci), he emphasizes that the most effective and most dangerous use of power is to prevent conflict from appearing in the first place. If leaders can convince people that toxic wastes are good for them, or at least for their employment, or if general social assumptions convince people that their unemployment, lack of health insurance, etc. reveal their personal failure rather than social failure, conflict disappears or at least becomes displaced.

A complete definition of power must incorporate this third dimension, which requires an understanding of the ways in which consciousness is shaped. Antonio Gramsci introduced the concept of ideological hegemony to explain the process. Stuart Hall has recently revitalized the concept:

"This operates, not because the dominant classes can prescribe and proscribe, in detail, the mental content of the lives of subordinate classes (they too 'live' in their own ideologies), but because they strive and to a degree succeed in framing all competing definitions of reality within their range, bringing all alternatives within their horizon of thought. They set the limits — mental and structural — within which subordinate classes 'live' and make sense of their subordination in such a way as to sustain the dominance of those ruling over them" (1979, p. 333).

The three-dimensional view of power becomes, then, not just a more comprehensive explanation of power's meaning and processes, it also critiques pluralist theory grounded on a simplistic one or two dimensional view. This will have substantial implications as we reconsider the meaning of news.


For the last 40 years, the pluralistic view of power and society has dominated U.S. mass media research, directing research and assimilating competing perspectives within its explanatory boundaries. For instance, the pluralistic perspective has assumed that the media are for the most part independent institutions. The media, they say, sometimes act as a special interest group in its own behalf. And the media sometimes serve as government watchdogs — making sure government acts impartially and on behalf of the general public. They also function as a public forum where conflicts of interests between competing interest groups can be argued in an orderly and gentlemanly fashion.

These assumptions have led to a scholarly research agenda which implicitly accepts the limited notion of power built into the pluralistic perspective. Pluralists ask questions like these — does violent television content lead to violent behavior in society, did the New York Times devote the same number of column inches to the Bush campaign as it did to the Dukakis campaign, or should freedom of speech rights be extended to corporations?

Researchers often merely probed the surface level of social interaction, the only level pluralist researchers could look at, given their assumptions about power. Such research found that the media, not surprisingly, had little or no effect on audiences. In addition the media seemed relatively passive in terms of exercising what the pluralists call power. In fact, the pluralists had to conclude that the media's primary role was to reinforce existing social cohesiveness.

In the last decade, supporters of a critical theory of society and the media have launched a direct assault against the pluralist paradigm. In many ways, an attack wasn't even necessary, since the paradigm had started to crumble on its own accord. The 1969s had provided little evidence for the social stability which pluralism assumed existed. The '70s economic crises further indicated instability. The question posed by the real U.S. experience of these two decades was not the pluralist hallucination of what makes our country work so well, but what sleight of hand stops our country from being torn apart?

Pluralist media researchers were ready to reconsider their position. They had statistically researched themselves into a corner from which they had to conclude that the media had no effect — when all around them the media were being charged and credited with getting the United States into and out of the Vietnam War, bringing Nixon to his knees, stimulating terrorism, launching a sexual revolution, catapulting an aging movie star into the White House, etc.

The scholarly attack on pluralism came from at least two fronts. The first front was from inside. George Gerbner and his students at the Annenberg School of Communications were pushing a culturalist view of the media to try to expand current thinking about mass media's effects. Their work resulted in a body of literature about the role of the mass media in constructing our images of social reality. They suggested a dramatic and powerful role for the media in politics and social life.

The other front was based in Europe. Fifty years ago members of the Frankfurt School, first in Germany and later as expatriates in the United States, began articulating a critical theory of society based on their economic analysis of developing capitalism. This theoretical tradition recognizes the role ideology plays in social control. It was not widely recognized for years in the United States, having been beaten into the margins of academic discourse by the gleaming blades of pluralistic empiricism.

As pluralism continued to fail as a theory and as empiricism continued to reveal its limitations in explaining the dynamics of complex social processes, the tradition of the Frankfurt School was rediscovered. In this context, by 1984, the dominant communications organization in the United States, the International Communication Association, set the theme for its annual conference as "Paradigm Dialogues," featuring debates between the pluralistic and critical perspectives.

The critical view distinguishes itself from the pluralistic perspective in five key ways. First, critical theory recognizes the unequal distribution of wealth and power in society and over systems of communication. Second, critical theory is concerned with the "processes of legitimation through which the prevailing structures of advantage and inequality are presented as natural and inevitable" (Golding and Murdock, 1978, p. 353). Third, it does not regard media as autonomous institutions. Fourth, critical research looks "less for direct behavioral effects of media and more for how meaning is created in specific historical contexts" (Real, 1984, p. 78). Fifth, critical research argues that all research is guided by personal commitment. It views the classical positivist ideal of a value-free pursuit of science as a mystification of how knowledge is constructed. Michael Real sums up the critical perspective:

"Critical communication research examines public communication in reference to economic and political forces and the exercise of power, with attention given to social, historical and ideological contexts. Political-economic dominance and epistemological issues are frequent concerns of critical theory" (1986, p. 460).

The study of power must include not only visible decision-making processes and non-decisions, but also the ideological exercise of power. The ideological exercise of power, in Lukes' terms, comes through "shaping perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they [social agents] accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or image no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained or beneficial" (p. 24). This rediscovery of ideology forces us to reconsider the role of news in contemporary society. News is not a passive transmittal of information but a key site of struggle over the production of meaning.



The dominant view of journalistic practice in the United States is less of a theory than the accumulation of one hundred years of rationalization for the commercialized production of news. It tautologically defines journalism as the institutionalized process of news gathering and reporting. But what is news gathering and reporting? Emery and Emery, authors of one of the classic texts on journalism's history, answer with what sounds like a plot line from a Grade B movie: Journalism is

"the story of man's long struggle to communicate freely with his fellow men — to dig out and interpret news, and to freely offer intelligent opinion in the marketplace of ideas" (1972, p. iii).

Contained in this definition of journalism are several interrelated, unexamined assumptions about the relation between journalism as a site of meaning production and of power (Bybee and Hacker, 1988). The first is that the press functions, or could function, independently of other social, economic and political institutions.

The concept of an independent press remains a necessary myth to sustain the belief in and acceptance of U.S. society as a pluralistic democracy, composed of competing interest groups vying for state favors. An independent press provides a guarantee not only that citizens have the necessary information to alert them to the need for action, but also that there exits a publicly accessible forum for the orderly debate of important issues. Systematic studies and experience have challenged this assumption. It has endured, however, because the shortcomings of the actual working press are simply used as arguments for the glory of an ideal independent press. The shortcomings are never interpreted as the inevitable outcome of the current system.

The second assumption in the dominant view is that communication primarily represents a problem of transporting information from a source to a receiver. Information, what are called "facts" in journalism, is treated as discrete bits of empirically observable reality which can be precisely cut from their setting, iced, thawed and re-experienced with only marginal losses in meaning. This assumption has been challenged, often from within the pluralistic camp. Pluralistic researchers have recognized that a reporter's attitude, the hidden agenda of a news source, and/or the structure of the news gathering process can influence a fact's accuracy. Academic journals and popular magazines contain many such studies. The code word became "bias." Sure, bias exists in the news, but it is an index of the degree to which the news deviates from reporting the truth. The key here is that the dominant view assumes truth EXISTS. This is the third assumption of the dominant view.

The third assumption is closely related to the first two. Contemporary U.S. journalism is grounded in the philosophy of logical positivism. There is a reality and it exists out there. Our job is to observe and record it as accurately as our senses and our instruments of observation allow. Achieving objectivity becomes primarily a technical problem. And presumably we can separate truth from values.

Pluralistic research has met the challenges to the first two assumptions of hegemonic journalistic practice by ignoring their deeper implications. It cannot meet a challenge posed to the third assumption. The increasingly incestuous relationship between news and money, knowledge and power, challenges this assumption at the level of many people's experience. To recognize explicitly the third dimension of power is to pose a challenge at the level of both personal understanding and theory. Critical theory deals with news in its role in producing social reality.


Critical theorists who adopt the three-dimensional view of power perceive news as ideologically active. In contrast with the view developed by pluralists that media have limited effects, critical theorists recognize the active role of media in society and see news as an ideologically encoded frame, rather than as a mirror of reality. Gaye Tuchman argues that "news is perpetually defining and redefining, constituting and reconstituting social phenomena" (1978, p. 184). According to the Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG),

"News is never simply a series of facts or a simple mirror of external reality. Rather, it is a cultural product and the accounts and descriptions of the world which it gives are produced from within specific interpretative frameworks" (1980, p. 3).

The critical point of view challenges the notion of social responsibility in which news provides a marketplace of ideas and objective reports of important issues. For example, the GUMG argues that

"it (news) constantly maintains and supports a cultural framework within which viewpoints favourable to the status quo are given preferred and privileged readings" (p. 122).

This agrees with Tuchman's argument that "news, with the web of facticity, legitimates the status quo" (p. 13). Tuchman further defines news more concretely as

"an ideology, which is a means not to know: a means to obfuscate and so to legitimate the intertwining of political and corporate activity" (p. 14).

Herbert Gans states more specifically that "news supports the social order of public, business and professional, upper-middle-class, middle-aged, and white male sectors of society" (1979, p. 61). Furthermore, he argues that "new news is also generally supportive of government and a variety of other national institutions, including the quality universities" (p. 61).

Thus, theorists who are critical of the pluralistic view of media perceive news as reconstructing social experience to support existing social values and order. For example, Herbert Altschull states that "broadcasting outlets give capitalist ideologues a tool of incalculable power to promote and expand support for the prevailing belief system" (1984, p. 135). He analyzes news media in terms of commercial imperatives.

Critical theory recognizes that the active ideological production of meaning through news can be intentional (instrumental) as well as unintentional (structural). It is often intentional, as Michael Parenti identifies. He states that "along with owners and advertisers, political rulers exercise a substantial influence over what becomes news" (1986, p. 228). He claims that news is also "conscious deliberate misrepresentation" (p. 219), or "disinformation" (p. 222). According to him, "Disinformation implies that false and fabricated evidence has been disseminated" (p. 222). This contention separates him from other critical theorists owing to his stress on the "conscious" distortion of news (intentionality).

Other theorists stress the structural conditions of ideological production. They argue for the importance of an unconscious aspect within the encoding process. The framing of news does not necessarily result from a conscious and conspiratorial process. Rather, it often comes from an unconscious process based on people's assumptions about life, rooted in their social conditions and backgrounds.

For example, according to Stuart Hall,

"Statements may be unconsciously drawing on the ideological frameworks and classifying schemes of society and reproducing them without those making them being aware of so doing" (1982, p. 7).

Alvin Gouldner comments that "news is defined against the tacit background of unspoken premises, and by the bench marks these provide" (1976 cited in GUMG, p. 402). The GUMG is empirically substantiating Gouldner's theoretical point:

"Ideologies are the connecting link between the socalled 'facts' of the news and the background assumptions which enable us, the audience to understand those 'facts" (p. 402).

The GUMG study provides an excellent example of this critical approach. The GUMG examined the mechanisms of ideological encoding in industrial-news reporting by BBC and the ITN. They analyzed industrial news coverage during the first four months of 1975, and found in this news coverage, ideological imbalance against the working class as well as ideological support for government and management.

Their study is important, not only because it has revealed that television news coverage was not as "balanced," "neutral" and "impartial" as it claimed to be but also because it goes beyond the discovery of bias to the identification of the mechanisms of ideological production. Their study detected that

"there are significant absences in the vocabulary of industrial news reporting which, along with the vocabulary which is used, reveal selectivity and value preference for a particular view of the causes and nature of industrial conflict" (1984, p. 66).

However, they do not suggest that television news simply and directly shows the ruling-class view, but that in subtle and complicated ways, it finds the dominant view credible, trustworthy, and preferable. Furthermore,

"there is an attempt to reduce the plurality of meanings inherent in any social conflict to a set of simple formulae or frames of reference which are at base an ideological defense of the legitimacy of the status quo" (p. 124).

Similarly, Hall argues that particular accounts may be ideological,

"not because of the manifest bias or distortions of their surface content but because they were generated out of, or were transformations based on a limited ideological matrix or set" (p. 72).

Robert Hackett explains that limited ideological matrix" as

"a set of rules and concepts for making sense of the world which is systematically limited by its social and historical context" (p. 263).

Thus, critical theorists increasingly draw upon conceptions of ideology to explain news making. According to Hackett, this

"broadens and even contradicts the view that news messages are biased in accordance with the motivations of communicators" (p. 260).

The concept of "ideology," within the critical camp, is "moving away from a concept of a superstructure hanging over an economic base, towards a view of ideology as a constitutive elements in the relations of production, and in their reproduction" (Hackett, p. 261). This reconceptualization of ideology parallels Raymond Williams' theoretical framework, which again draws on Antonio Gramsci's notion of "hegemony."

"In the version of Marxist theory inaugurated by Antonio Gramsci (1971), hegemony is the name given to a ruling class domination through ideology, through the shaping of popular consent. More recently, Raymond Williams (1973, 1977) has transcended the classical Marxist base-superstructure dichotomy (in which the 'material base' of 'forces and relations of production' 'gives rise' to the ideological 'superstructure'). Williams has proposed a notion of hegemony as 'not only the articulate upper level of 'ideology', but 'a whole body of practices and expectations' which "constitutes a sense of reality for most people in the society" (Gitlin, pp. 9-10).

Todd Gitlin has adopted Williams' theoretical framework and has proposed that

"the notion of hegemony…is an active one: hegemony operating through a complex web of social activities and institutional procedures. Hegemony is done by the dominant and collaborated in by the dominated" (p. 10).

Tying this notion to the function of mass media in capitalist societies, Gitlin writes:

"In liberal capitalist societies, no institution is devoid of hegemonic functions…But it is the cultural industry as a whole, along with the education system, that most coherently specializes in the production, relaying, and regearing of hegemonic ideology" (p. 254)

He continues that

"hegemony operates effectively — it does deliver the news — yet outside consciousness; it is exercised by self-conceived professionals working with a great deal of autonomy within institutions that proclaim the neutral goal of informing the public" (pp. 257-58).

Yet, the news frame is not neutral and impartial, because it is bounded by the hegemonic ideology in society and the dominant class interests inside and outside the media organization. Therefore, the critical theorists do not see the media as independent, autonomous organizations in society. Rather, they see the organizations deeply intertwined with other institutions in society. Within its limited autonomy, the news plays an active role in society in shaping audience's perceptions about reality, consciously and unconsciously reaffirming hegemonic ideology of society and legitimating the status quo. However, it is important to keep in mind that the dominant ideology is not static and that there is always the possibility left for challenging it by a counter-ideology.

As explained above, the pluralistic approach interprets news from a one-dimensional view of power and focuses on observable conflict in the encoding process. Moreover, it assumes objectivity is possible. Therefore, you should see manifest bias when you see the distortions of news.

Within the pluralistic perspective, it is impossible to explain the following question: What makes consistent partial explanations of social phenomena in news coverage possible without the news' losing its credibility among audiences? If news consistently reinforced a particular point of view intentionally, the media would quickly lose credibility. However, most audiences regard news as credible. Since critical theorists view news as consistently presenting a certain interpretation of reality, they try to find an answer to this question by drawing on the notion of ideology.

The framing of news is not necessarily a conscious process. Rather, it is often an unconscious process based on routine practices and people's assumptions. Their limited ideological framework, which stems from their social backgrounds and tacit assumptions about life, works within the hegemonic ideology. Hegemonic ideology is experienced by members of a society as if it were common sense or culture. Therefore, power holders, media practitioners and audiences do not necessarily realize its existence.


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