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January 2019    Dennis R. DuBe'     666/2992

Serving the Public and Serving the Market: A Conflict of Interest?
          John McManus #2992   Created 11/01/2011   Updated 11/13/2019

Treating a serious issue with extorted emotion illustrates a conflict of interest missing from journalism's codes of ethics; between corporate interest in selling and journalism's interest in serving the public. Understanding this conflict is crucial becasue commercial U.S. newsrooms are moving from journalism judgments torward the market as an arbiter of what is news and how it should be reported (Auletta, 1991; Kwitny, 1990; Lesly, 1991; McManus, 1990, 1991; Underwood, 1988; Zachry, 1992) 197

But there are two major flaws in the reasoning of those who claim that, in journalism, those who best serve the market also best serve the public. First is the assumption that news media serve a news market. The second is that news is a commodity improved by market forces. 197

...do not compete in a news market but a market for attention that includes many persons with little interest in understanding significant issues and events of the day because advertisers pay for numbers and demographic characteristics of consumers. Consumer motivations to watch or read is secondary (Picard, 1989).

Consumers are rarely in positin to compare even a single news story with their own experience, much less an entire newscast or newspaper.. 199

Prominent stories are repeated by various news sources. 199

The repetition of major stories in different media permit consumers to compare reports of one news organization against another. But such comparison are possible on only the free stories covered by more than one news organizations. 199

Most news is what economists call a "credence good" (Darby & Karni, 1973), a product that must be consumed on faith. Micro-economic theory predicts that when consumers buy blindly, they risk being defrauded (Darby & Karni, 1973). 199

"...the demands of market service--more fundamentally, profit maximization--and the public demand for reliable information may conflict." 199

The probability of an event becoming news is: 1. Inversely proportional to the cost of discovering the event has occurred. 2. Inversely proportional to the cost of reporting it. 3. Directly proportional to the expected appeal of the story to audience advertisers will pay to reach. 201

[ i.e. 1/cost of discovery (times) 1/cost of reporting (times) appeal to audience

the cost of discovery and reporting (editorial) is spread over the appeal (size of audience). ]

To the extent that content that enlightens the public is expensive to learn or and report, and unpopular or boring, the interest in maximizing profit conflicts with the interests in serving the public. 201

The principle ethical codes of journalism follow what Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm (1956) called the "social responsibility" theory of the press. 201

(Hutchins Commission) The Commission listed as the first 'requirement" of the news media "a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning" (Commission, 1947, p. 21). 201 The goal of such information, according to the Commission, was public empowerment through democratic processes, not the private gain of news organizations."

In a public attention market, appeal is the necessary means to the end of information. The news must attract out attention before we can learn from it.202

(people consume news for two basic reasons: cognitive (orientation) and emotional (entertainment, para-social). Emotional has more commercial value (these are not quotes. see page 203)

The inherent conflict between the logic of business and the logic of journalism should be profoundly troubling for those who consider reliable information necessary for proper operating of a democracy. 205


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