For generations, people have understood and accepted that the news media has the power to set the public agenda through how it covers major stories. How well does the media bear that responsibility? Some argue that the news is gathered “objectively” in adherence to basic principles of newsworthiness, including such factors as timeliness, proximity, relevance, weight, impact, and controversy. Others propose that the process of is more subjective, governed by patterns of conduct, gatekeeping, framing, and a hierarchy of credibility.
The hierarchy-of credibility highlights the way reporters rely on official sources seen as having the credibility to speak as experts. Because of this, individuals with more power and prestige, usually officials in government and business, are represented more favorably in media coverage. Sociologist Howard Becker explains that “credibility and the right to be heard are differently distributed through the ranks of the system.” Those with the most prestige are given the right to control public discourse. Those without power and prestige are often left out of news coverage, even though they are also, in many cases, most directly affected by policies and events.
- During disasters, reporters often have limited access to the traditional “credible” news sources. Under pressure to air information as quickly as possible, reporters don’t have time to seek out “official” sources. On the ground after a natural disaster, campus shooting, or other crisis event, journalists interview anyone affected, involved, or aware of a situation.
This is the point when reporters are most likely to talk with working-class and poor people who aren’t usually seen as having significant credibility. Their interpretations of situations or events are often dramatically different than the views of officials whom reporters normally interview. The stories generated through this type of reporting often represent situations more fully, and they reflect perspectives that probably interest more readers.
We saw this most clearly during Hurricane Katrina. The nation learned of the massive social problems in the Gulf Coast not from government sources but from individuals whose stories of despair captivated the nation’s attention long enough for some reforms to be enacted.
Hurricane Katrina also highlighted how relying on “credible” sources can erase not just voices, but whole stories. Shortly after Katrina, in September 2005, the public editor of The New York Times acknowledged that his paper had failed the public by ignoring the New Orleans story before the hurricane:
The New York Times assumes a responsibility to alert its readers to significant problems as they emerge in major cities such as New Orleans. Poverty so pervasive that it hampered evacuation would seem to have been worthy of the The Times’ attention before it emerged as a pivotal challenge two weeks ago. And the inadequacies of the levee system deserved to be brought to the attention of readers more clearly long before the storm hit (14).
Of course, The New York Times was not the only paper to have missed the story of poverty and despair in New Orleans in the years before the hurricanes. The disaster triggered an awakening of journalists to issues of poverty, race, and class. Historian Dan Carter told a Copley News Service reporter that it sometimes takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster: “Usually, there’s not a lot of interest in issues of poverty except when there’s something dramatic. By and large, the poor are simply out of sight, out of mind.”
The disaster effect can extend beyond a moment of crisis. Michael Massing noted that in the days after Katrina, reporters began “asking more pointed questions at press conferences, attempting to investigate cronyism and corruption in the White House and Congress, and doing more to document the plight of people without jobs or a place to live.” And he posed a critical question: “Will such changes prove lasting?”
Massing’s question was, of course, rhetorical. We know that reporters all too quickly returned to relying on official sources from the top rungs of the hierarchy of credibility. Why?
Some have argued that it’s a matter of habit, but the status quo is supported by the structure of the newsroom. In many newsrooms, reporters are assigned to cover specific beats, such as government organizations, the police, religion, or entertainment. This helps reporters develop relationships with highly-placed sources that can give them access to important information, but it can encourage the habit of returning to those same sources day after day, looking to them for news and tips rather than talking with ordinary people.
Other institutionalized facets of traditional newsgathering operations also help perpetuate the status quo, such as the near-constant need to meet deadlines. While newspapers now have fewer reporters covering the news, they also have more deadlines than ever – not just the daily deadline for the print edition but also additional deadlines for more frequently-updated online editions. No wonder reporters rely increasingly on their most familiar, most obviously credible sources.
The value of going beyond the usual sources has become clear in recent months. As the recession deepens, reporters have told stories not only about bank presidents, the CEOs of the auto companies, and government officials managing the bailout, but also about ordinary people displaced from their homes, struggling to find a new job, and responding to government strategies for addressing the economic crisis.
Now would be a good time to take Massing’s question to heart: will this change last? Can journalists continue to tell not only the official story but also the on-the-ground, face-to-face story of how people are surviving and struggling through the current not-so-natural disaster?
Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco