The Medium

How does the medium affect the news?

Format of Mediums

If you're watching the regular 30-minute evening news program on your favorite TV channel, do you expect to get the same amount of information that you would get from reading the New York Times? While one might expect that the stories found on the front page of the Times would be covered fully in the evening news program, this is often not the case. The medium in which the news is presented directly influences how much information can be presented to the audience whether they are readers, listeners, or viewers. Therefore, the medium in which the news is presented has the potential to affect the way in which the audience interprets the events being described.

Consider the following: In a typical evening news program on a major broadcast network, the program is allotted thirty minutes to present the day's news. A considerable portion (5-10 minutes) of this is then allocated to advertisments, for which companies pay thousands of dollars per thirty seconds. All of the "important" news must be fit into this reduced period of approximately twenty minutes, and so we see an effect comparable to "Afghanistanism."

In 1974, the term "Afghanistanism" was given its current meaning by Anthony Lukas, a reporter for the New York Times. By this term, Lukas meant that writers felt that news about something happening far away was less important, and that as such the media coverage was likely to be more biased of such articles.

According to a 1990 book by Martin Lee and Norman Solomon entitled "Unreliable Sources," people are starting to play into the television news format. "Reagan's PR Team created special events to fit into 30-second or minute-long sound bytes on the evening news. 'We'd be crazy if we didn't think in those terms,' said Reagan aide Michael Deaver."1 With the White House trying to spin the news into a pre-packaged sound byte ready for the television media, what are we missing out on? The thirty second sound-byte prepared by the White House news service certainly isn't going to contain a two-sided argument. By playing into the television's tactics and providing a pre-packaged sound clip, the Reagan team effectively ensured that their "hot-topic" got covered, possibly making it easier to side-step other issues.

Now compare the constraints faced by evening news programs with those faced by newspapers. Newspapers do have a limited amount of space to work with, but if a story runs long, it can simply be continued onto another page. In the grand scheme of things, it does not make a significant difference whether the New York Times' A section is 33 pages or 34 pages. This does not mean that the newspapers and magazines face no space restrictions, rather it simply means that the lenght of an article is less of a limiting factor in print medium than on television.

News presented on the Internet faces quite different issues concerning the limitation of space. On the Internet, the only things a content provider must pay for are the web servers and the bandwidth used to deliver the content. Plain text takes up extremely little space on web servers, especially when compared to today's large capacity hard-drives. The bandwidth required to transmit plain text is negligible. With a typical page ranging between 5-20KiB (not including images), and bandwidth typically sold in increments on the order of 1,000,000 times this amount, the only increased cost coming from longer articles is the increased cost of writing and research. As such, publishers of content on the Internet face virtually no space limitations, and can provide as much (or as little) content as they choose.

In, "The News About the News," a book by Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser, the authors point out that the web has become an outlet for a wealth of information, "Traditional journalists have begun to see the Web as an opportunity to give readers background, details, graphics, and photographs that won't fit into newspapers or television broadcasts, which now regularly inform readers that they can find additional information online."2. The authors go on to note how after the 9/11 attacks Internet news sources were providing users with on-demand content complete with descriptions more detailed than the short clips on the television news networks. Clearly, the ability to provide a wealth of information on-demand has the potential to re-shape the news media, perhaps reducing instances of bias due to the constraints of traditional print and television media. However, before proclaiming the Internet as the savior of news objectivity, it is important to consider other aspects of this budding medium as well.

Credibility of Mediums

At first glance, the lack of restrictions on Internet content may make it appear that you will get more information and a more well-rounded, less biased viewpoint. However, this is a dangerous conclusion to jump to. While the high cost associated with publishing in a televised medium limits the amount of information that can be disseminated, it also ensures at least some level of reliability and control of quality. Due to the low cost of publication on the Internet, anyone with an axe to grind can post their thoughts on any given subject. The only guarantees of quality, objectivity, and depth of sources stems from the readerís trust in the author. If the site in question is on a free web-host with no mention of author credentials, there's a good chance youíll have to take a careful look at the information being presented to recognize if it is a fair account of events.

To be published in a well-recognized print or television media outlet, a story must have at least some semblance of credibility so the reputation of that media outlet can be upheld. Organizations such as these are generally staffed by professionals sworn to a code of journalistic ethics. The high cost and high degree of prestige generally associated with publishing in these types of media outlets makes it unlikely that the random individual with an axe to grind will get published in such a medium. While it isnít advisable to trust everything seen on T.V., one must realize that the high costs and prestige associated with this medium can translate into credibility in the eyes of many.

It is clear that the medium can influence the manifestation of bias related to news reporting. There is a tendency to try to fit news into small sound-bytes in television media, which can lead to omission of information, the limiting of debate, and a lack of context. In periodicals, there is still a definite publishing cost, but it is not as pronounced as television, leading to less of the "60-second news effect". On the Internet, there is little control over what gets published, and so blatantly biased (or even false) news pieces are available along with credible, objective pieces. Each medium for the dissemination of information carries its own potential pitfalls, and because of this it is increasingly important to consider these issues in order to develop the critical mindset necessary for an informed interpretation of the news arriving on your doorstep, desktop, or television set.

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  1. Martin A. Lee and Norman Solomon. Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1990), 105.
  2. Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser. The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 214.