Being Right:
The Hidden Ideology of News

What does a news story or other communication about "facts" need to have to be effective?

At the most basic level, it needs to meet four criteria. It has to exist. It has to communicate. It has to make assertions of fact. And it has to make assertions or claims about values.

But none of these four, in themselves, is enough since a communication may exist but not be perceived; it may communicate but not be understood; it may make assertions but not be believed; and it may make value judgments that audiences disagree with.

So, we expand the criteria. To be effective:

A communication must exist, which means it must be embodied in physical/sensory objects, and those must be accessible and perceived by the audience. This requires some kind of physical presence in written words, sounds, pictures and so on, and an audience that is physically able to perceive the physical/sensory objects and that is paying attention.

A communication must communicate and be understood. This requires that the audience understand the symbols (speak the language, be able to read, and so on) and that the symbols and meanings should also be clear enough to be discerned (the pictures can’t be distorted beyond recognition, and so on.)

A communication must make assertions of fact and must be believed. To be believed, it requires a number of things:

It must make experiential or "narrative" sense to the audience. Pigs don’t fly (at least not without assistance) and beloved first ladies don’t all of the sudden become suspects in multiple ax murders. If the assertions depart drastically from what the audience believes makes sense about the world, it will cause the audience to question the veracity of the communication.

The audience must also have reason to believe the communication is true. Two reasons stand out. First, there may be evidence. Before we worried about "visual truth" videotapes and pictures were considered reliable forms of evidence. Now they are less so. Assertions of fact made by police or well known people are another example of what we count as evidence. Second, for a communication to be believed, the communicators need some kind of authority in which the audience feels it has reason to view them as truth tellers and reliable describers or presenters of information (which is to say, they are honest and competent.)

Finally, the communication must seem normatively correct or manifest correct values, in its purpose and form, and should make value judgments the audience agrees with. It should have a purpose; that purpose must seem proper to the audience and the communication must seem relevant to the purpose. It must fall within accepted norms for the form communications of this type are expected to take (directions to the police stations shouldn’t rhyme; news stories shouldn’t give speeches on virtue, unless they are quoting one) and it should fall within accepted norms for communications, in general, (in most instances, it is expected to be civil, for example.) The reporter should seem correctly motivated (at least there shouldn’t be a reason to believe he or she isn’t.) And the judgments the story makes about what it describes – where it places all this in the order of values -- should also seem correct to the audience. In other words, the story must locate itself and the reporter on the right side of the binary pairs of values, and wherever it locates the recipients of the coverage should seem to be correct to the audience.

The failure to meet any of these criteria, may interfere with a communication’s success, although not all failures are necessarily fatal. An audience may have some doubts on normative grounds, for example, about a discrediting attack in a newspaper. It may believe the newspaper has exaggerated the seriousness of some misdemeanor describes, or even exaggerated the facts, but the audience may still believe that the description is basically correct and describes something deserving of censure.

The creators of news stories (and politicians and others) take great pains to meet all these criteria. They have developed distribution and broadcast systems to reach their audience and they have perfected the art of making things easy to discern and of telling stories with great clarity.

They have also gone to great pains to convince audiences that they can be believed since without this, they lose legitimacy and the entire enterprise collapses. To convince audiences that they are truth-tellers accurate describers, they make certain that stories present all kinds of things that count as evidence. They show photographs. They offer quotes and paraphrases of quotes that are attributed to eye witnesses, to experts, to people in the know and to documents. They also make a point of developing reputations as truth tellers and accurate describers, by being reliable; by depicting themselves as truth-tellers; by making corrections and often by suppressing corrections and suppressing criticisms of their motives and veracity. In fact, what counts as evidence is really dependent on their authority as truth tellers and accurate describers. If the audience doesn’t have faith in their authority as truth-tellers and describers, then photographs, quotes, descriptions of information in official documents, and so on, won’t seem to it to prove very much, since quotes and photographs can be fabricated and information about what appears in documents can be wrong or misleading.

News organizations also go to great lengths to demonstrate their ethical veracity. They make all kinds of implicit and explicit claims that the stories they tell, and the efforts to enhance, defend and attack reputations, are in the public interest, and serving the public’s right and need to know; or that the people they tell stories about are legitimate targets. As described elsewhere, not only does the news media justify what it does, it is also usually careful to convey judgments that it believes its audiences will agree with and approve of. To give one common example, reporters may write stories, intended to evoke outrage, about public people who use drugs, when the reporters in question may believe that drug use should be legal and publicly ignored. In such instances, which are legion, they write stories the way they believe the audience wants to read them, with implicit value judgments based on the audiences perception of values. (Of course, they also write stories that seek to convert the audience to their point of view.) On occasions when news organizations depart from the effort to be at one with their audience on values, they often uses qualifiers to explain why they are following conscience or compelled to disagree with the public, in one case.

Before continuing, it should be noted that there may is one other requirement many communications have to fulfill to be successful – they have to be interesting or of interest to the audience. This is certainly not true of all communications; it is partly true of others and very true of others, including many news stories. A number of qualities may make a news story interesting. One is when it deals with a subject of practical and direct emotional interest to the audience – how to get that stain out; what will the zoning be across the street, or exactly whose decision was it to skip filling in the potholes this year. Second, a story may be interesting by playing to our psychology – offering us fools to laugh at, villains to hate, victims to empathize with, powerful people whose greatness audiences can participate in, exciting dramas they can also vicariously participate in, and so on. Many news stories add both of these together to achieve their success – they tell us, or claim to tell us, about issues we are concerned about in ways that play to or psychodynamics and evoke an aesthetic response.

What we are dealing with here are both claims (manipulated images) and practices, although the two aren’t always easy to separate since it is all information, and claims are built into practices. When news organizations make an effort to get information correct, they are engaged in a kind of . When they imply that audiences can trust them to get information correct, that would count as a claim. When they disguise information to make it appear correct when it isn’t, I would count that as something in between.

There are a great many things that are interesting about these practices and claims. What interests me here is that they are used by the news media to maintain its legitimacy and thus its power and also that the media often departs from these criteria while pretending not to, so it can maintain that legitimacy and power. In other words, these are things that all news organizations must do to retain the faith and interest of their audience. But they also function as an ideology, designed to mystify audiences and cover up the way news organizations really operate.

These claims and practices often lead audiences to have a misplaced faith in the news media, resulting in a loss of legitimate power for audiences. It imposes a kind of false consciousness on audiences, in which they view the news media’s interests as being their own. If audiences appreciated the degree to which many news organizations both fail to live up to these ideals, and also uses these ideals to legitimize its other activities, they would see the disparity between their interests and the media’s. Much of the news media, after all, falsifies their view of the world and interferes with their ability to exercise democratic rights, through all its machinations.

News organizations routinely depart from what they claim to be doing, to influence politics and society, and to gain money and audiences, and to achieve personal ends such as self-aggrandizement or the sadistic enjoyment of inflicting suffering on others.

They fail to report information they don’t want audiences to know, especially about themselves.

They manipulate the information they do provide, once again to control the information audiences can get.

They play to audience values they may not agree with, and try to manipulate audiences into accepting other values.

They instrumentally manipulate the values and emotions of audiences, giving them villains to hate, victims to feel sorry for, and so on, inventing and exaggerating moral outrages.

What is the solution to these "imperfections." Trying to create ethically-based news organizations is one solution. Here is another: transparency. Make the news media (as well as government) more transparent to audiences and critics.

Let critics and ombudsman examine how stories were put together.

Let news organizations publish and broadcast the values they use in deciding how to construct stories. To use an earlier example, if news organizations write stories about drugs under the assumption that most of their audiences wants drugs to stay illegal and wants drug dealers and users locked up, they ought to say that publicly. Or if they write stories that are shaped by the fact that they believe these things, they ought to say so. If they write about abortion under the assumption that their audience is divided on this issue, let them say that.

Let the recipients of news coverage and others have their say in video letters, in web news sites and expanded letters sections in which people are invited to critique the presentation of news, and no merely sound off about it.

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Lets take a closer look at some of the rules journalists (and others) must follow to convince audiences that someone or something referred to in the communication is deserving of credit or discredit. The rules can be phrased as a set of statements a journalist must be able to make about a recipient of coverage. (We’’ assume it is a person engaged in some action here, to simplify the description.) Those statements are: The facts show the recipient engaged in a certain actions. What the recipient did was right/wrong. He knew what he was doing and knew it was right/wrong, and he had control over his actions. The issue is relevant to public life. In some instances, when journalists want to engage in a discrediting attack, the recipient must also seem strong enough to sustain the attack.

If the journalist can make all these statements, he has an action that deserves image enhancement or defense or attack or, at least can justify it. (The first three are, obviously, close to questions that are used to determine guilt in court. There, the questions would be The facts show the accused engaged or did not engage in a certain action. What he did was legal/illegal. He knew or did not know what he was doing and was capable or not of distinguishing right from wrong.)

This set of criteria plays three different roles in public life. First, journalists can use them to determine if and how they can and must cover some person, idea, organization, etc. The questions tell the reporter if he has a story and what kind of a story he has. The answer is that it is a story about someone who upheld or violated the value order of society in a way that the public would want to, and has a right to, know about. These criteria also provide the same information to audiences, which they can use to judge news stories and the recipients of coverage. Here we already see all kinds of opportunities for disagreement, because different parties may differ on all these questions, including questions about what is right or wrong.

Second, this information serves as a guide for what journalists need to tell the public in their stories, to lay out the case for what happened and why the story is being told. In effect, any statement that is intended to show someone violated or upheld the value order of society must answer those questions for the audience, since these are also the questions the audience asks in determining praiseworthiness or culpability. If the audience is assumed to already have some of these answers, then the answers need not be provided in the story. At the other extreme, if some or all of these questions are, themselves, in question, then that, too, often becomes a part of the story. For example, it may not be known for certain whether the accused actually committed the act. Or there may be disagreement over whether what he did was wrong or over whether it is relevant to public life. A story that is seeking "balance" will describe these conflicting assertions.

But these criteria can also be used a third way. If one chooses to overtly criticize or praise a news story, showing that these criteria are adequately or inadequately met can be used to back up one's assertions.

These same rules apply to politicians. If a politician wants to make another politician look good or bad, he must answer the same questions for the audience. Here, we see all kinds of opportunities for manipulation (as we do with the news media). An image support or attack need not be justified; the information need not be true; it need only successfully follow this form.

Lets look at these questions individually, phrased as rules for image attack.

1. Do the facts show the recipient carried out the action in question or has these qualities? Obviously, there must be facts or what appear to be facts to back up the portrayal of the accused. To build their case, it is helpful if the news media can find a theme or connecting thread between discrediting incidents, so it can portray each as part of a larger pattern. The news media uses various sources of information, including its own observations, statements by other people with direct knowledge of the issues in question, official pronouncements and findings and speculation by experts. It also uses the subjects own words against him, looking for discrepancies between comments or between what is said and what is known from other sources.

2. Did the recipient do something good or bad? Every time image is enhanced or attacked, it must be because the recipient upheld or violated the value order of society. In particular, when a credibility strike is being carried out, the journalist must portray the victim as an offender to the moral order. This allows the journalist to justify his departure from social rules for not mistreating other people. And it allows the audience to bring the appropriate defenses into play, so it can believe its support for the attack and its enjoyment of (or callousness toward) the victim's suffering is morally proper. Otherwise, the audience might itself be open to an image attack from other people or conscience, for cruelty, and suffer anxiety, shame, guilt and other negative emotions.

3. Did the recipient know what he was doing, know it was wrong or could he help it? As in a court of law, the accused must appear not only to have engaged in a action but to have known what he was doing. If it is a question of incompetence, it must be in a situation where competence had a right to be expected. Gerald Ford stumbling and a frail, retired actress stumbling are two very different things when it comes to image treatment.

4. Is it relevant to public life? The audience must believe that the issue at hand is relevant to public life and therefore fair game for comment, a requirement that is easier to fulfill when the victim is a public figure. If not, the attack appears gratuitous. If the victim is a scapegoat, the attack can become more blatant, under the presumption that a majority of the audience has already determined this is someone who can be legitimately attacked or that few people are willing to stand up for someone who has been discredited.

Is the recipient strong enough to sustain the attack? In many circumstances, the recipient must appear strong enough, physically and psychologically, to handle the attack, lest the journalist look like a bully and his own image be placed on the right side of the binary pairs, in other stories and/or audience perceptions. A sick crook can be berated in a news story but obviously not in an interview in which he is visibly suffering while he is aggressively questioned. In many instances like this, the attack can be modified, rather than abandoned altogether, with the addition of qualifying statements that explain why the attack is necessary, despite the recipient’s condition, or the use of a sympathetic and apologetic tone of voice.

Kitty Dukakis, for example, was largely spared from attack and intrusive prying, after she drank a toxic substance that contained alcohol, because of shared perceptions that she was too vulnerable (and too nice) to be mistreated. That perception was created by her frail and gentle appearance, particularly on television, along with the desperate and self-destructive nature of the action, and enhanced by her defenders, who argued that she needed privacy to recuperate. In addition, her status as a political wife rather than a politician and the personal nature of the action contributed to the perception that this was not a matter of legitimate public scrutiny. Had designated villain-clown Tammy Faye Bakker (her name at the time) done the same thing at the height of the bad publicity she was involved in, a circus of jokes and mockery would have erupted, despite her suffering. Had it been Leona Helmsley, a more bitter gloating might well have been expressed.

6. Moving from the object of the attack to the journalist, we see that the journalist or other discreditor must portray his action as an attempt to uphold the moral order of society and/or do his job, which means he can't appear to have a hidden agenda such as personal gain, sadistic gratification, sensationalism, fear or revenge. This also allows the audience to identify with the journalist, who acts on its behalf, and vicariously enjoy or appreciate his attack on the victim. If the journalist's self-presentation fails, the audience may begin to identify with the victim and view the journalist's attacks with increasing anger. The journalist can revel in his victory and engage in name-calling or fawn over a politician, but only after he is off the air, or, if it is in the story, only in disguise.

In many instances, these portrayals are accurate. Journalists often do intend to protect society. In others, the journalists real motives may be more venal or involve support for values other than those of his society, in which case the claim to be upholding the value order is a disguise. Most commonly, motives are mixed, in which case the element of motivation that involves the desire to serve society (and any other positive motives) is presented as image to the public, often in exaggerated form and blended with other, less truthful claims. Anything unacceptable is usually censored out, or at least the attempt is made.

But, however pure or venal his motive, the journalist must present his motives as well intended, or be subject to attack. It is what the public perceives, not what the journalist actually intends, that will determine how his report is received.

7. The form of the attack, as opposed to its reasons, must fall within accepted norms. It can't appear overly aggressive or insensitive and must appear proportionate to the alleged crime. This is often a subset of #6, since it raises questions about the journalists motives, although one can imagine situations in which the form of the attack is deemed inappropriate and the journalist is viewed as not at fault, and it still discredits the attack. For the form of the attack to fall within accepted norms, it may have to give the recipient a right of response, although this varies between media.

8. The news story must uphold society's expectations of what a news story, or other news product, is. The news reporter can't openly editorialize; editorials can't openly pass on gossip; a television interviewer can't do all the talking or read a prepared statement; the cartoonist can't stick a serious editorial into the box that normally contains his illustration. Such failings may be perceived as one of morality, competence and/or psychological health, depending on the breach of expectations, the violator and the circumstances.

As noted, journalist's can carry out successful attacks merely by portraying their motives as proper, whatever their actual intentions. The attacks also have to be competent, which generally means they have to be genuinely competent, at least at the way they manipulate information, since a well-intended and well-deserved attack that is poorly delivered, discredits the journalist, who is viewed as lacking skill or essential character traits, rather than being immoral. Such a journalist will likely be perceived as not a worthy defender of society’s values. Competence often means the journalist must remain in control and use his power to portray himself as in control, especially in any circumstance in which audiences will be able to observe the journalist interacting with the recipient of the attack. Actual control allows him to put the victim in the defensive position, which is a further source of discredit since the recipient is displayed on the receiving end, so to speak, as he or she is ravaged by reporters. Remaining in control also helps protect the journalist’s own image from counter-attacks that can discredit him or her and cloud the issue. It also allows the news product to focus on the issue at hand and present it with the intended slant.

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These rules also tell us what recipients of attacks have to do to defend themselves. The recipient can claim any combination of the following: he didn't do it; it wasn't a violation of society’s order of values; he isn’t strong enough to suffer the attack; he didn't know what he was doing, didn't know it was wrong (although, in many instances, this will only work if there is some valid reason he didn't know -- ignorance of the value order of society is not in itself a defense) or he couldn't help it. He can also claim what he did isn't relevant to public life and, thus, has been inappropriately handled by the press and is no one’s business. He may also attack (negatively portray) the journalist’s motives, without asserting any of the other claims above, or he may attack the form of the journalist's attack as part of his larger strategy, although if this is to bear fruit, in the end it must be to support one of the above claims.

Among the possibilities, the recipient can seek to show that that the journalist's motives were themselves immoral, which might, for example, explain why the journalist is lying about the facts or is pushing an issue that isn't relevant to public life. He can claim that the form of the attack or the news story violated accepted standards or he wasn't given a proper opportunity to respond, but once again these need to be used to support some of the other questions to be of use. Claiming he isn't strong enough to sustain the attack will only work in some situations and isn't a common defense, in part because it once again shows weakness and puts the victim in the defensive position.

Of course, as in any good legal defense, all this is best when tied in to a simultaneous attack on the attacker, which not only helps discredit the initial attack but also distracts attention onto a new target, which can then get unpleasant media scrutiny, and also sends out a message to other would-be attackers that there is a cost to pay for such actions. It may also help alter the perceived power balance so that the original recipient of the attack doesn’t merely look like he is in a vulnerable position, on the receiving end of an attack and an act of aggressive domination.

The most successful response is to retain a calm, nondefensive demeanor, whether in person or in writing, acting as if nothing discrediting has occurred, so one doesn't appear to be on the defensive. Ronald Reagan's Teflon coating was partly the result of his ability to look and act entirely innocent, unself-conscious and unconcerned in the face of reporter probes. Even when he was trying to avoid giving direct answers to questions, which was often the case, the impression was often left that it was facts about situations or other people he was holding back, not discrediting information about his own motives or character. The ability to act nonplussed in the face of verbal attacks is a highly valued ability in our society that gives the recipient of an attack, whether he is a saint or con artist, a greater chance of success. But then the ability to modulate one’s emotions when delivering any message provides an edge as it is an essential part of the presentation of image.

The reverse is also the case. Victims who look nervous, evade questions or inappropriately attack the press are discredited a second time for their handling of the initial attack. Gary Hart had a superstick coating long before the Miami Herald came up with a charge the news media could use to pass sentence. Hart looks and acts like he has something to hide, because of psychodynamic aspect so of his personality. Hart's jaw often tightened, his eyes glared and he bristled when reporters carried out what for them were relatively routine probes, leaving the impression he was vulnerable and had something to hide.

Like Hart, victims often challenge the press' motives and portray themselves as victims of press overkill, thereby turning the tables on their accusers. Sleazy politicians seeking to undo the negative effects of good investigative reports can use the same techniques and seek to portray the reporter as politically motivated, or merely hyping a story to get an audience, even when he or she isn't - one of many ways in which the corruption of press motives poisons the well for the kind of investigative and independent journalism that is needed to expose the misdeeds of those in power.

Rules for enhancing image

Most of the same set of questions need to be answered when enhancing or defending someone's image. Do the facts show he did it? Did the recipient do something good or bad? Did the recipient know what he was doing, know it was good and could he help it? Is it relevant to public life? Is the journalist properly motivated? Does the form of the attack, as opposed to its reasons, fall within accepted norms. Does the news story uphold society's expectations of what a news story is? And so on.

Perhaps we have a more stringent criteria for good. Often we also expect that the recipient should have done it because it was good.

.As part of this, the journalist must show himself to be properly motivated, namely that he is crediting the hero to uphold the value order of society, if only because he is trying to do his job. He can't be doing the story to pay back a favor or help a relative, for example.

Of course, none of these criteria tell us how good or bad, discrediting or crediting, a particular action may be considered to be. To know that, we must know the content of the society's order of values.


Press has a privileged position


Thus, in the end we come to the reality we all know: almost everyone portrays their own action as good and their opponent's actions as bad. But the press has a privileged role because it is defined as carrying information about what all the other players are doing. Journalists are thus able to maintain their dominance only because politicians go along with the press's definition of its own role and usually treat the press as off limits to criticism during public interviews or else holds its criticism in check. When attacks counter-attack with questions and accusations, the press is in an awkward situation. If it refuses to answer or engage in debate, it appears evasive, hypocritical and defensive, which in the press's pantheon of values are among the deadliest of sins. If it fights back, it encourages the erosion of its protective controls and still ends up looking defensive. It thus has a vested interest in not driving politicians too far into the realm of counter-attack.

A full appreciation of the way the press controls the format can produce a new sympathy and perhaps a new respect for politicians, and less for journalists. Politicians are, on average, terrible deceivers, but they are out in the world, managing people, objects and events, and yet they must also appear on the stage of the news media in the vulnerable position. The news media merely appears in its own setting with everything stacked in its favor, which is exactly the way it likes it.

Placed in an arena in which it must interact with politicians on an equal basis, much of the press' apparent superiority and much of the politicians' apparent vulnerability would vanish. Placed in positions of responsibility in government, with another press to deal with, the press would soon find itself on the defensive. Indeed, as its actions are contested and make news, it increasingly finds itself in the same defensive position as politicians, which can be an excellent cure for arrogance and can give it a new sympathy for those it covers.


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