A Fourth Estate? The Role of the News Media in Shaping Reality

The news media is often characterized as an objective and neutral “fourth estate” responsible for protecting democracy and defending the public interest. According to this view, the news media is independent of the workings of political or government agencies. Communications theorists, however, have scrutinized the news media to determine the extent to which the news actually influences the development of our beliefs and world view.

News Values

In “News Values and News Production” Peter Golding and Philip Elliott explore news values and their impact on the delivery of the news. According to Golding and Elliot, news values serve two functions: they are used as criteria of selection and guidelines for coursework writing help presentation, “suggesting what to emphasize, what to omit, and where to give priority.” This definition indicates that news values are an important factor in the selection and construction of the news. News values determine what news the audience will receive, which in turn focuses the audience on this news as salient information.

The news values identified by Golding and Elliott are excellent examples of how the selection and construction of the news can exert influence over our attitudes and perception of reality. For instance, Golding and Elliott cite drama and negativity as two important news values. News stories are considered to be good if they have a dramatic structure, especially one that includes conflict (“bad news is good news”). The news media thus has the potential to exert immense influence over how we perceive the information we receive in the news. If we are cued to focus our attention on news stories that are rife with conflict and tragedy, we may be encouraged to develop negative attitudes and perceptions of the world around us. In short, news values determine what news we think about as well as how we think about that information.

News as Ideology

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Golding and Elliott expand their discussion to explore the consequences of selecting and constructing the news. In particular, they describe news as ideology and suggest that it serves to encourage a world view that is “supportive of the interests of powerful social groupings.” In addition, Golding and Elliott argue that news contributes to a false impression of the social process and of power in society. The news is presented as a succession of interchangeable events, effectively fragmenting the social process so that issues appear to be static rather than evolving.

Here we see how the news, in telling us what is salient and framing that information in a particular way, influences our attitudes and perceptions in favor of the dominant social minority. As Golding and Elliott point out, “the prevailing beliefs in any society will rarely be those which question existing social organization or values. News will itself merely reinforce skepticism about such divergent, dissident or deviant beliefs.”
In “The Social Production of News,” Stuart Hall also examines the ideological role of the news media. As with Golding and Elliott, Hall and his team highlight the agenda-setting function of the news, defining it as “the end-product of a complex process which begins with a systematic sorting and selecting of events and topics according to a socially constructed set of categories.” They recognize the impact of the bureaucratic organization of the media and the structure of news values, but also emphasize a third aspect of news production: the construction of the news story, by which news events are socially identified, classified and contextualized in terms of “maps of meaning,” which already form the basis of our cultural knowledge.
Hall clarifies this idea as follows: “The process of signification…both assumes and helps to construct society as a ‘consensus’. We exist as members of one society because—it is assumed—we share a common stock of cultural knowledge with our fellow men.” In other words, the selection and construction of the news serves to reinforce the beliefs and values of the dominant social group, thereby influencing our attitudes and perceptions according to the erroneous assumption that the audience forms a social consensus.

Through the selection and framing of news stories, the media undoubtedly exert immense influence over the development of our attitudes and perceptions. What remains to be answered is the extent to which the audience passively receives the information reported in the news, and to which the news media can provide this information free from the interference of powerful institutions and social groupings.