If you were one among the dwindling number of people who bought a newspaper on 20th April 2016, you may have wondered why many of the front pages looked rather similar.
Most of the UK’s biggest newspapers printed a picture of the royal family, ahead of the Queen’s 90th birthday, and covered a story about migration into the EU.
How and why did the country’s newspaper editors decide that these stories were front page news, when their respective readers differ so vastly in taste, opinion, upbringing, wealth, education and politics?
More broadly, what drives editors and journalists to cover certain stories and not others; and has conformity in the media led to the death of the scoop?
Aeron Davis, professor of political communication at Goldsmiths, has given some thought to these questions, and agreed to try to explain the phenomena to Londonmultimedianews.
LMMN: Do newspapers print the same stories every day?
AD: Not entirely. Newspapers have their different readerships and different audiences, but quite often there are clear things that they’ll all run with: a human interest story, a political story, a sports story.
Journalists talk about news values and news worthiness, part of which is trying to get into the minds of the readers. But very often it’s about everyone looking at each other, monitoring each other.
Who drives a newspaper’s agenda? The editors or the readers?
Who’s leading and who’s following? I’ve never quite been clear. I’m not quite sure how much is the prejudice of the owners and the senior editors – which attracts a certain type of readership. Or perhaps it is the other way round.
The Sun has right-wing views and supports Conservatism most of the time but famously has a lot of left-wing voters among its readership. It’s an example of disparity. The leader columns are perhaps not being read, and readers have other reasons for buying the paper.
The Daily Mail is the classic example of a newspaper that has clear lines on certain issues, pandering to fears on immigration, technology, pensions. But even among the Mail’s readers, I’m sure there are those with very different views to the paper’s line.
How does a newspaper enforce a certain political line in its copy?
Without overt censorship being imposed, new trainees learn quite quickly the kind of line that is taken within the newspaper. If they deviate too far from that, they won’t necessarily get into trouble but their story won’t be printed.
So you internalise what’s needed to get your stories in the paper. And getting stories in the paper means you’re a success and that you will succeed in your career. It has a lot to do with status and advancement – they work subtly, just as they do in any work place.
Do experienced journalists copy each other’s political views?
Within parliament, although there are perhaps a couple of hundred lobby journalists, there are half a dozen who are considered the ‘path-finders’ or the ‘weather vanes’. After any big speech or Prime Minister’s Questions, these experienced doyens will gather in a corner to discuss it; and other journalists will literally go up to them and ask what line they are taking – not that they always follow it – but they still want to know what the pathfinders are thinking.
On top of that, journalists are constantly looking over their shoulder at each other. As Michael White of the Guardian told me, if you spend a lot of time on a story that none of the other papers are looking at – and you’ve left out a story that’s being widely covered – then you’re doing something wrong.
New media has made this more prominent, because it’s so easy to look at the headlines and monitor the radio and other websites.
Why don’t more journalists dig for stories?
In any pressured environment, everyone wants to come up with something new; however doing so is always a risky strategy. You may come up with something new, but more likely you won’t – and you will have wasted time and resources. The same thing happens with CEOs and politicians, who are trying to do something radical. If it goes wrong, they are the ones who are clearly to blame.
As a journalist, even though you know you’re covering a stupid story (and many journalists do know), if you do something else but it goes wrong you’ll get blamed. But if you’re all covering the same stupid story – or all missing the big vital story – then no one can blame you because everyone else did it. That’s the same in newspapers just as it is in financial market bubbles or political group think.
Have we seen the death of the “scoop”?
This is one of the big problems of the internet age. Ten or 20 years ago you could investigate a story and run with it. That story would draw attention, honours and readers. If you have a scoop now, it will be on the front pages of your rivals’ online editions within an hour. Under-resourced editors question the value of investing in new journalism if they won’t get the credit for the story.
How much time do journalists spend finding original stories?
Studies tell us that the amount of copy and broadcast time per journalist is going up. Nick Davies estimates that journalists are producing two or three times what they did before. Some of that can be explained by advances in technology, but some of it can’t.
Journalists tell me anecdotally the same thing: that they have to do more with less, in one form or another. And news is less and less profitable, so resources are cut in various ways. Journalism in a way is now like Coca-Cola you buy in a pub: it appears to be the real thing but it’s watered down quite a lot.
You can see it in the types of journalism: more commentary, more celebrity stories. There’s less investigative material and stories that take more time and resources, such as foreign reporting and in-depth policy reporting.
What is the status of reporting of big events, such as the financial crisis?
The failure of financial reporting in part lies in the fact that finance is hugely complicated. Companies’ annual reports are huge, door-stop like things. Even if a journalist is financially trained, there is so much material to go through that it’s hard to find the time.
Unlike political journalism, big companies don’t need to talk to journalists – especially the big financial companies. Journalists are there on sufferance, and they don’t have a lot of leverage. A political journalist has a lot of leverage in terms of offering coverage to a politician. So journalists are allowed in to companies, as long as they stick to the rules.
Companies now employ armies of public relations staff, who can feed the material to a journalist – so there’s always an easy story there. Under-resourced journalists are often pushed towards the positive story, and away from looking for a scandal or a crisis.
Group-think is not limited to journalism: in his inaugural lecture in February 2016, Professor Davis described how Britain’s elite was becoming increasingly detached from the public, interacting instead within a closed network of other elites.
This lecture was the result of two decades of research and investigation, including 350 interviews with senior figures in British media, finance, business and politics. An introduction to the lecture can be watched below.