Lecture notes for Tuesday, February 15, 2000.

External Influences on News

1. Government.

2. Advertisers

3. Interest Groups

4. Other media

5. Community concerns

What influence do people or organizations outside of the news media have? How do they shape the news?

Remember our discussion earlier in the quarter about a variety of pressure groups that work to shape general content. We paid particular attention to the boycott against Disney, led by the Southern Baptist Convention, but we also noted a variety of other groups who attempt to influence media content.

Who are the people or organizations attempting to influence news? How do they succeed in this endeavor? What is it about news (its definition, its operation) that makes it possible for outsiders to influence it?

1. Government and News

Limited legal control over news; media have wide discretion to print news about the public interest (which is very broadly defined). This material is posted under lecture notes for Thursday, February 10.

2. Advertising and News

Advertising played a minor role in the American media until the late 19th century (beginning around the 1880s). The U.S. Industrial Revolution created a new role for advertising. Why? The Industrial Revolution has three chief components: (1) MASS PRODUCTION (e.g., factories that could produce thousands of items [such as shoes, lamps, dishes] compared to an earlier era of limited, usually hand-made production of those items). (2) MASS DISTRIBUTION (Centralized production in mass production meant that goods had to be shipped all over the country; this was made possible by the rise of a national distribution system -- the railroad. (3) MASS MARKETING. (Mass production and mass distribution necessitated some method of letting potential consumers know about products. Marketing followed production and distribution, signaling the birth of modern advertising. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers turned to the media to reach consumers. Advertising soon became a major source of media income).


Advertising’s impact on content.

Ad rates are computed according to how many audience members use the medium -- what is often called COST PER THOUSAND. Having more subscribers means more advertising income for a newspaper; having more listeners/viewers means more advertising income for radio/television.

The concerns advertisers have in dealing with news media is the same they have in dealing with entertainment media. The size of the audience alone is not enough. Advertisers want to target those most likely to buy their products -- and that becomes the TARGET AUDIENCE.

Target audiences are defined in terms of (1) DEMOGRAPHICS (age, gender, income, education) and (2) PSYCHOGRAPHICS (attitudes, lifestyles, interests). A magazine targeting a particular "demographic" group might be a magazine for 20 somethings or for seniors. An example of target audiences defined in terms of psychographics would be skateboarders. Other groups commonly represented in magazines, for instance, would be gardeners, designers, amateur cooks, cigar smokers, etc.

Advertisers buy space or time from media that have the best target audience for their products. How does a medium capture the RIGHT target audience for advertisers? It finds out what target audience members want and then gives it to them.

For example, as newspaper circulation has declined since 1970 (a 21 per cent drop between 1970 and 1990 in the 20 largest US cities; since 1990, no growth in circulation while the population is growing) publishers have turned increasingly to UPSCALE target audience to ensure a steady stream of advertising income. Big city newspapers generally reach less than a third of all households in their areas (e.g., 24 per cent daily for Chicago Tribune; 32% for Dallas Morning News).

Newspapers have traded wide penetration of all types of households for DEEP PENETRATION in the target audiences most attractive to advertisers -- high income professionals, whom one media critic calls the CHAMPAGNE CROWD.

The WALL STREET JOURNAL may have the highest income readers, with an average subscriber household income above $100K. The Boston Globe says that "it reaches with a single issue....53 per cent of those with $100K plus household incomes" even though these wealthy households account for only 9 per cent of all those in its area.

One media critic, Conrad Fink, writes that newspapers have cultivated high income readers by "intentionally structuring news content primarily for them. We also market selectively, concentrating circulation drives in the right neighborhoods-- those found to yield high (upscale) demographics."

Pressure from advertisers

Advertisers are not afraid to use their financial muscle to protest what they perceive as unfair treatment by the news segment of the mass media.

Self Censorship by news organizations

3. Interest groups

An interest group is composed of individuals who want to communicate their stance on one or more issues to the public. They use media to focus public attention, create public awareness, persuade. Interest groups often try to influence legislation, as well as public opinion and behavior.

For example:

Some interest groups try to influence media content by providing guidelines for covering topics of interest to that group. The American Bar Association (the leading lawyers’ professional organization) has adopted guidelines for the media in the reporting on trials. About half the states have adopted these guidelines.

So-called "think tanks" are organizations (usually with a particular agenda) that generate studies and other research designed to influence public policy. Some think tanks include the Brookings Institution, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Association, Heritage Foundation, RAND Corporation, Council on Foreign Relations, Urban Institute, Economic Policy Institute, Hudson Institute, Manhattan Institute, Center for Defense Information. These think tanks routinely try to influence public policy by influencing public opinion. You’ll often see representatives from these organizations on news discussion shows and on panels on the evening news (e.g., especially on the Lehrer News Hour, which uses panels of experts regularly).

Some media interest groups

Accuracy in Media (which fights what it sees as liberal bias in the national news media); Between the Lines (which targets what it sees as left wing TV news reporting and anti American movies), Center for Media & Values (which teaches media literacy: understanding media messages, effects on people), Environmental Media Association (which encourages writers, producers and directors to use environmental themes in TV, film and music), Fairness/Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) (which works for more pluralism and diversity in the news), Focus on the Family (which targets pornography, offensive music lyrics and other issues of interest to conservative families), the National Coalition Against Pornography (which fights obscenity, child pornography), the National Coalition on TV Violence (which monitors video games, war toys, TV for incidence of glamorize violence).


How do these groups influence news?

1. They work as pressure groups

They lobby legislators, try to influence public opinion (through studies they sponsor, reports or publications they issue), conferences they sponsor, etc.

2. They provide "experts" who can serve as "sources" of news. Reporters (both in print and TV) rely extensive on "experts" who can explain issues. Such experts have knowledge about issues (and so are good sources of information); they also have a measure of credibility (given that they devote time and energy to the study of these issues). Expertise spans the horizon of key issues in a society at any time, but most of these would deal with some aspect of politics and public policy (e.g., welfare reform, health care, deficit spending, Social Security, media effects, media violence, etc.).

This table documents media reliance on some of these think tanks, noting the number of news reports in which someone from one of these think tanks was cited. (Each citation thus refers to an individual news story. 2296 citations means that there were 2296 news stories -- in print or television -- in which someone from this think tank was cited as an "expert."

Think Tank

Political Orientation

Media Citations 1998

Media Citations 1997









American Enterprise




Cato Institute





Economic Policy Inst.






FAIR, a liberal media journal, contends that conservatives dominate public television’s panels of experts. They contend that many of the key "talk" shows on television, composed of "experts," are essentially quite conservative: Wm. F. Buckley’s, Firing Line; John McLaughlin’s "McLaughlin Group," Tony Brown’s Journal and other shows such as Wall Street Week, Nightly Business Report and Adam Smith’s Money World.

Institute for Public Accuracy.

Premise: A few large think tanks have too much impact on news coverage and political discourse in US. IPA: nationwide consortium established to as a counter-balance to traditional think tanks. IPA: Roster of Experts. 200 researches and analysts highly qualified to assess research data and policy prescriptions of think tanks. IPA Bulletins(for journalists, commentators, producers)

Regardless of political affiliation: the key issue here is that there are many interest groups that are trying to influence public policy - and one way they do this is through the news.

Interest groups and public relations campaigns.

These groups also issue reports, press releases, sponsor studies, hold press conferences, attempt to arouse grass roots support. Accuracy in Media (AIM), for instance, offers the following: twice-monthly news letter, a daily radio commentary, a speaker’s bureau and a weekly newspaper column -- "all geared to setting the record straight on important stories that the media have botched, bungled or ignored. We also attend the annual shareholders’ meetings of large media organizations and encourage our members to bombard newsrooms with postcards and letters about biased and inaccurate news coverage."

Environmental News Network. (http://www.enn.com) promotes itself as "Your link to environmental education and awareness." "The Environmental News Network mission is to create environmental awareness on critical issues through the presentation of fair and balanced daily news and information products."

ENN offers daily news and features on current environmental issues delivered online, by e-mail and through syndication, press releases and consulting. ENN provides its products and services to CNN, Turner Broadcasting, National Geographic, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other media companies, government agencies, foundations, special interest groups and the general public.

Interest groups conduct PR campaigns that use the media to focus public attention.

e.g., EASTMAN KODAK Co. took out a full page ad in the COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW ( a leading publication that many reporters and editors read) to persuade journalists that manufacturing is still an important component of the U.S. economy and to call for "a national debate on the direction of economic policy and how it affects manufacturing."

The idea behind public relations is to create a good image with the public. Most groups want the public to know of the good things they do, or to put a positive spin on things they are doing. Public relations can mean that a group deals directly with the public (e.g., through direct mail to the home). But usually public relations means a group, company or organization attempts to get favorable news coverage.

Organizations try to get favorable news coverage by telling news organizations about what they are doing. For example, the White House might issue a short notice to the media (called a "press release") that notes that the crime rate is going down (true; this can be factually proven) and that claims that the President’s policies are the reason for this decline (an argument which some support and others will contest. This is the part of the press release which focuses on making the White House and President look good).

Reporters rely on press releases as a source of news. Some press releases are more newsworthy than others; consequently, some get in the news and others don’t.

A key goal of organizations using public relations: Get your message into the media, as news. News has higher credibility than advertising, so getting reporters to deliver your message to the public is ideal.

Who uses public relations?

1. Governments use Public relations.

About 15,000 public relations people work for the U.S. government, spending about $3 billion a year. Every member of Congress has a public relations staff person (or two or three). The White House produces 15-35 press releases every day. A press release is an announcement about something that is going on that might seem newsworthy.

2. Politicians/ candidates use public relations. We’ll talk more about this when we focus on politics and media.

3. Educational institutions use public relations. The University of Washington’s Office of Community Relations, for example, issues press releases and video news releases.

4. Non profit groups (such as the Girl Scouts)

5. Professional organizations such as the American Bar Association (lawyers), the American Daily Farmers, Raisin Growers, etc. Many of these groups will rely on ads (such as the Dairy Farmers’ highly successful "Got Milk?" campaign), but they also work hard to get their message into news stories (with press releases, for example, that note that milk is a good source of calcium and thus a good tool in the fight against osteoporosis).

6. Entertainment and sports figures. Teams, individuals, events (Special Olympics, etc.) and actors rely heavily on public relations agents. They key rule of thumb here is that any media coverage may be better than none at all.

7. Businesses use public relations.


In 1982, seven people died in Chicago after taking Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. This was clearly a disaster for them and their families. It was also a disaster for Tylenol’s owner, Johnson and Johnson, which had spent millions of dollars and many years creating the product and building public trust in it. Tylenol represented 36% of headache market.

J&J moved quickly:

Within a few days of the deaths, it became clear that a terrorist had planted the cyanide in the caplets. The deaths were not Tylenol’s fault, and this news clearly absolved Tylenol from blame. Still, people were nervous about Tylenol; sales dropped 20% immediately. How could Johnson and Johnson restore confidence in the product? They turned to public relations, hiring one of the nation’s leading public relations firms, Burson-Marsteller, to help them.

With Burson-Marsteller’s help, Johnson and Johnson did the following:

Resulting news coverage extensive. Stories noted Tylenol’s efforts to guarantee safety to the product. Today, Tylenol is once again a leader in their product line. This is an example of one of the most successful public relations campaigns for a product in history.

Kuwait. Hill and Knowlton.

In 1990, the Iraqis invited Kuwait. A government-in-exile was established; it created an organization called "Citizens for a Free Kuwait." This organization hired Hill and Knowlton (the largest public relations firm in the US) to tell their story. At that time, few people -- including many in Congress, which much of the story would be told -- knew that Citizens for a Free Kuwait was using a professional public relations company to help them.

The challenge in this case was this: How to get the United States to feel sympathetic to the Kuwaiti government in exile. Kuwait was a monarchy, giving only limited rights to women (women could not vote, for instance). Some Americans were very critical of the Iraqi invasion but many were dubious that we should go to great lengths to restore the Kuwaiti monarchy to the throne.

The challenge thus was to create support (in the American and especially in Congress) for the Kuwaitis.

Some of the strategies used by Citizens for a Free Kuwait/Hill and Knowlton:

Every-day use of Public Relations.

Most of the time, we are aware of public relations as a REACTION to events (e.g., how will EXXON deal with the huge oil spill in Alaska? How will Tylenol deal with the cyanide deaths?). But public relations is used every day by thousandas of organizations that want to get the media to publicize them and their actions.

Public relations messages are always in the news. Estimates are that more than 50 per cent of the news -- newspaper articles, magazine articles, TV news stories -- got their start from PR.

Press releases come in two forms -- print and video.


Let’s focus primarily on Video News Releases.

There are at least 1500 public relations firms in the United States. They use video news releases a lot. VNRs are in ideal way to place your image on small TV stations, which need cheap and easy to use footage.


1. Neutragena. Neutragena Soap PR Video News Release. Aim: to get people to buy Neutragena soap. Get this message into the media -- without it looking like an ad.

VNR: mostly focuses on debunking myth that expensive lotions and moisturizers can keep skin from aging. Third party spokesman, a noted dermatologist, states that the best way to take are of facial skin is to wash with warm water and a mild soap, such as Neutrogena.

Note: the product mentioned only once, and in passing. Video shows cosmetic counters in department stores, a doctor examining a patient’s skin, and a woman washing her face. While the Neutrogena Package is never seen, the soap being used is the clear, amber colored bar that has been synonymous with that product.


2. Hypothetical situation.

Imagine that the following things are true: Electrocardiogram (EKG) usage is down. Doctors often discount its value. Many of them say that it has no real predictive ability; its chief value is if you have heart problems/symptoms of some kind. So it may have value for some, but it is fairly limited. Medical journals concur with this view.

Now imagine that you are a public relations practitioner and your client produces EKG machines (indeed, about 75 percent of the market). Sales are down since 1990 and look as if they will continue to drop. How can you increase use? You could have booths at medical conventions (such as the American Medical Association), you could sponsor research showing that EKGs are valuable -- and then you could create video news releases. Your goal here is to appeal to viewers, who in turn will then ask their doctors for an EKG. You don’t want this to look like an ad; rather you want the media to carry your message as part of a news story. The lack of your "fingerprints" on this message means higher credibility for you and your company.




Video news are most common in health care (e.g., development of new drugs or new products (e.g., carbon monoxide detector) or in touting industry discoveries (e.g., Vitamin C reduces high blood pressure, yogurt prevents cancer).

How to spot VNRs.

1. Reporter not shown interviewing people.

2. Shows a new product, new technology,

3. Factory or office scenes

4. Business or product: in positive light.

5. Ask yourself: who benefits?

VNRs: Fakes? Real news?










4. Other Media

Journalists read, watch and listen to news from their own and from competing organizations. When a story breaks first in one medium, it mayquickly be picked up by other media.

New England Journal of Medicine: Some media are particularly good at setting the agenda for other media. The weekly New England Journal of Medicine is an often quoted source of medial news. It does not send out press releases about its contents prior to its Thursday publication date, but it does send advance copies of the publication to the news media on Monday.

NEW YORK TIMES: For general news, the final arbiter of quality and professionalism is the NEW YORK TIMES. It’s coverage often legitimizes a topic.

Scholar Herbert Gans writes: If the TIMES did not exist, it would probably have to be invented.

Other leading news sources include CNN and National Public Radio. Journalists and editors monitor these organizations to keep up with what’s going on in the world today.

5. Community Concerns

The kind of community from which a medium operates influences content. The community is the environment in which the medium must operate, and therefore the community’s economy and culture as well as its physical and social layout will affect both the kind ofmedia that set up business there and how successful they are.

In larger cities, competition more intense, sometimes putting an emphasis on more local news.

The size of the community can influence news, too. Some publishers of newspapers in small towns say that it is important that they be community boosters -- helping to promote economic development of the town. In Edgerton, Wisconsin, after a lot of local businesses closed, the newspaper ran stories about the skilled, but currently unemployed work force in the town. When a manufacturer inquired about opening a plant, the newspaper was part of the community team that convinced the company to move there.

In the middle 1990s, when some US military bases were targeted for closure (to save money), local newspapers led campaigns to keep their bases in town.

When Seattle faced a vote on a new stadium for the MARINERS, the Seattle Times took a leadership role -- even giving free advertising.