Notes for February 17, 2000

Internal influences on news.

1. The Mission of Journalism: The representative of the people.

Journalists long have been dedicated to the ideal of serving the American people. The First Amendment's protection to the press is the basis for this dedication; the constitution itself notes out the role of the media as a special institution in U.S. society. The Constitution protects the media because the Founders of the republic saw the press as absolutely central to self-government.

These ideas were articulated in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One textbook on reporting, What a Reporter Must Be: Helps to Success in Newspaper Work, extolled the reporter as the true representative of the people:

"The newspaper report is, in fact, a representative of the people, exercising a right which no one can properly question or deny. He pursues his calling, not with any purpose or desire to interfere or meddle in the affairs of others, but to discharge a plain obligation to the public."

This sentiment, now a century old, still represents the key impulse in the U.S. news media: reporters serve the public.

The 1900 textbook, written by Nevada Hitchcock, also set out the rationale for this notion of journalism:

"[A reporter] goes on the floor of the legislature (to report on the news) because he is as properly placed there as the representatives themselves. All institutions which are created and supported by the people and which touch their common welfare must, according to the modern order of things, be subject to public scrutiny, and the newspaper reporter is entitled to be present, and to see and ask questions, without hindrance or evasion."

2. Media as the "Fourth Estate," a Watchdog on Government.

There was a strong sense in American public life (and in the press) at that time that we needed the press to serve as a "fourth branch" (or "Fourth Estate") of government, keeping an eye on the other three branches (the executive, legislature, judiciary). The role of public scrutiny, done by the press, was to make sure that government was conducted for the good of the people (and not just for the good of those in government).


Charles A. Dana

In 1888, the editor of the New York Sun, Charles A. Dana, gave a speech in which he described the power of the press. He argued that journalism was a major protector of American liberty. It was the press, he argued, that would hold the light of publicity up to government activity, thus stopping self-serving public officials and guaranteeing that the key liberties of the people were never curtailed.

Dana said:

"In this free country, our constitution puts into the hands of the executive officers of the government an immense authority. There is no King, no Emperor, no autocrat in the world who wields such power, for instance, as the President of the United States. Well, suppose a time should come -- God forbid that it ever should come -- but if it should come that there should be in the post of the president a man who has gained such influence over the hearts of the whole people that they become deaf to the suggestions of wisdom and give to his ambition a free sway and open field; suppose that he sets aside, little by little, the restraints of the constitution; suppose that he tramples upon that great principle of personal liberty, which is the noblest inheritance that our fathers have left us, because it is the very life of the Republic; suppose that he tramples down that principle; the executive power is in his hands; the army follows and obeys him; where then is the safeguard of the public liberty against his ambition? It is in the press. It is in a free press. And when every other bulwark is gone, the free press will remain the preserve the liberties which we shall hand down to our children, and to maintain the republic in all its glory, let us hope, forever and forever."

Editors and reporters, such as Dana, were fond of recalling the words of Thomas Jefferson (third president of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence). Jefferson said that freedom was something that people had to work to protect. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," he wrote. Dana and others argued that the press, if it remained free and active, would be eternally vigilant and thus defend the rights of individual Americans.


3. Principles of Journalism Today

The general principles of journalism operating today in the United States are summed up well in the 'Statement of Principles" of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). First drafted in 1922, these principles remain the foundation of journalism in the United States.


ASNE Statement of Principles

PREAMBLE. The First Amendment, protecting freedom of expression from abridgment by any law, guarantees to the people through their press a constitutional right, and thereby places on newspaper people a particular responsibility. Thus journalism demands of its practitioners not only industry and knowledge but also the pursuit of a standard of integrity proportionate to the journalist's singular obligation. To this end the American Society of Newspaper Editors sets forth this Statement of Principles as a standard encouraging the highest ethical and professional performance.

ARTICLE I - Responsibility. The primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinion is to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time. Newspapermen and women who abuse the power of their professional role for selfish motives or unworthy purposes are faithless to that public trust. The American press was made free not just to inform or just to serve as a forum for debate but also to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government.

ARTICLE II - Freedom of the Press. Freedom of the press belongs to the people. It must be defended against encroachment or assault from any quarter, public or private. Journalists must be constantly alert to see that the public's business is conducted in public. They must be vigilant against all who would exploit the press for selfish purposes.

ARTICLE III - Independence. Journalists must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety as well as any conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict. They should neither accept anything nor pursue any activity that might compromise or seem to compromise their integrity.

ARTICLE IV - Truth and Accuracy. Good faith with the reader is the foundation of good journalism. Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly. Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to facts as news reports. Significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, should be corrected promptly and prominently.

ARTICLE V - Impartiality. To be impartial does not require the press to be unquestioning or to refrain from editorial expression. Sound practice, however, demands a clear distinction for the reader between news reports and opinion. Articles that contain opinion or personal interpretation should be clearly identified.

ARTICLE VI - Fair Play. Journalists should respect the rights of people involved in the news, observe the common standards of decency and stand accountable to the public for the fairness and accuracy of their news reports. Persons publicly accused should be given the earliest opportunity to respond. Pledges of confidentiality to news sources must be honored at all costs, and therefore should not be given lightly. Unless there is clear and pressing need to maintain confidences, sources of information should be identified.

These principles are intended to preserve, protect and strengthen the bond of trust and respect between American journalists and the American people, a bond that is essential to sustain the grant of freedom entrusted to both by the nation's founders.


For more information on ASNE, visit its web site ( You can read reports from its conventions (dealing with such issues as the impact of technology on the future of newspapers).


4. Recognizing Quality in Journalism: the Pulitzer Prizes

One way to get a sense of the principles of journalism in action in the US today is to look at the winners of the Pulitzer Prizes. The Pulitzer Prizes were established by Joseph Pulitzer, a long time publisher (in New York City and St. Louis), to recognize outstanding reporting. First awarded in 1917, the prizes each year recognize outstanding work in several areas.

The prizes were created, by Pulitzer, to continue the ideals that had guided his newspapers. Pulitzer's newspapers (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, New York World) specialized in what can be called the "Journalism of Exposure." They hunted down grafters (whether in government or in private life) and exposed their misdeeds to the public. The notion was that the press would expose corruption or wrong-doing, which in turn would create public demand for reform.

When the contract for a new federal Customs House in New York City ran way over budget, Pulitzer's World disclosed the facts that the cost had skyrocketed in large part because of kickbacks from some contractors to politicians. Contracts had gotten the contract for the job by secretly promising bribes (kickbacks) to some key political leaders; these huge payments inevitably inflated building costs. On another occasion, Pulitzer's World provided proof that some private construction companies, that had won city contracts to repair sidewalks or to install sewers, began the work, collected the bulk of their payment, and then stopped construction work. The Pulitzer exposes forced the companies to get back to work and repair the sidewalks and fill huge holes in the streets (holes that had been temporarily covered with wood). On another occasion, Pulitzer's reporters found that a New York City tenement had an outbreak of deadly cholera because of bad sanitary conditions. Sewage from the 8 story building wasn't dumped into a sewer - but instead into the building's basement, creating a health hazard of major proportions. City health officials had "inspected" the building; as Pulitzer's World showed, the inspectors took bribes to ignore the unsafe conditions. As a result of the World's crusade against these sorts of conditions, health inspectors began to crack down on violations of city ordinances - and deaths from diseases such as cholera quickly declined.

Some of the Pulitzer Prizes in the past few years:

Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. These awards recognize "meritorious public service" by a newspaper. In 1999, the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service went to the Washington Post for its series of articles that identified and analyzed patterns of reckless gunplay by city police offers who had little training or supervision. In 1998, the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service went to the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald "for its sustained and informative coverage, vividly illustrated with photographs, that helped hold its community together in the wake of flooding, a blizzard and fire that devastated much of the city, including the newspaper itself." In 1997, the New Orleans Time Picayune won the public service Pulitzer for its series analyzing the conditions that threaten the world's supply of fish.

Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory reporting. This award recognizes "explanatory reporting" that illuminates a significant and complex subject." In 1999, this award went to Richard Read of the Portland Oregonian for his articles detailing the domestic impact of the Asian economic crisis by profiling the local (Oregon) industry that exports frozen french fries. In 1997, this award went to 3 staff members of the Philadelphia Inquirer for their series on the choices that confront critically-ill patients who sought to die with dignity.

Pulitzer Prize for Investigative reporting. This award recognizes "distinguished" investigative work. In 1999, the award went to the Miami Herald for "detailed reporting that revealed pervasive voter fraud in a city mayoral election that was subsequently overturned." In 1998, this award went to two Baltimore Sun reporters for their series on the international shipbreaking industry that revealed the dangers posed to workers and the environment when discarded ships are dismantled. In 1997, the award went to the 3 reporters from the Seattle Times for their investigation of widespread corruption and inequities in the federally-sponsored housing program for Native-Americans, which inspired much-needed reforms.

Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. This award recognizes distinguished reporting on national affairs. In 1999, it went to the New York Times for articles disclosing the corporate sale of American technology to China, with U.S. government approval, despite national security risks --- prompting investigations and significant changes in policy.

For more information on the Pulitzer Prizes (including the full text of award winners since 1995), visit


5. The Norms of Journalism.


6. Every-day News Values

Beyond the larger issues of philosophy about the role of journalism, there are some more mundane things that shape the news. In each of the pairs below, one of the pairs is more likely to be considered newsworthy than the other. Which one? And, most importantly: Why is it more newsworthy?

Situation: You are a Seattle TV news editor. Which story has greater news value?

1a. The twelve bakery workers at the SUNSHINE BAKING CO. in Ballard have voted to strike; the bakery will be closed beginning tomorrow.

1b. UPS workers throughout the United States have voted to strike; no UPS deliveries beginning tomorrow.

2a. President Clinton gave the State of the Union address 2 weeks ago.

2b. President Clinton held an extended press conference this morning.

3a. US House Speaker Dennis Hastert will lecture tomorrow in KANE HALL, and will argue that U.S. military defenses are weak.

3b. Gerald Baldasty will lecture tomorrow in KANE HALL, and will argue that U.S. military defenses are weak.

4a. A mudslide smashed a house and killed a family of four near Hamburg, Germany, this morning.

4b. A mudslide smashed a house and killed a family of four in West Seattle this morning.

5a. 250,000 area commuters got to their jobs safely this morning.

5b. Nine persons were killed in a fiery five-car pile up this morning on Interstate Five.

6a. 200 people picketed -- and then disrupted -- this morning’s regular City Council meeting. The protesters condemned the council’s purposeful overpayment of $40 million on the new downtown parking garage that is part of the Nordstrom development of the old Frederick & Nelson building.

6b. Three persons spoke against the city garage financing plan at an open hearing this morning at City Council chambers.

7. (a) Seattle-area residents working for various presidential candidates (in South Carolina, etc.) -- major primaries coming up early March.

(b) Seattle-area residents who are working elsewhere in the country right now.

Which news story would be easier to cover?

8a. City Council meeting tonight (starting at 7 p.m.; should be over by 10:30 p.m.).

8b. Poverty in Seattle (causes, consequences, what agencies/government/charities are doing about it, etc.)

Which story would you prefer? why?

9a. Video tape of fire that destroyed the home of Bill and Melinda Gates.

9b. Gates neighbor describes fire (no videotape of the fire)



 A. Impact

 B. Timeliness

 C. Prominence

C#2. Prominence/sources

D. Proximity

E. Bizarreness

F. Conflict

G. Currency

H. Efficiency

I. Personnel.

J. TV v. Print


7. News for whom?

News is also shaped by a publication's target audience. Particular considerations here include mass market publications (such as metropolitan daily newspapers) and more specialized publications (targeting reader by interest or by some other affiliation or membership). Where is the article on the left likely to be considered most newsworthy?



New Mariner Stadium has some serious construction problems that might endanger fans.

Northwest Asian Weekly

Skagit Valley Community College President to lead Latino education organization

Stranger-- Seattle publication focusing heavily on arts and entertainment issues.

General Motors business developments in China

La Voz: A Publication of the Concilio for the Spanish Speaking

Mariner’s stadium: projected traffic problems for International District

Seattle Times

Problems facing Puget Sound rapid transit proposals

Seattle Gay News

Problems local person has faced with US armed forces' policy of "don't ask, don't tell"

New York Times

Cardinal John J. O'Connor, archbishop of New York, nears retirement and makes his farewell visit to Rome

Wall Street Journal

Local concert by Bare Naked Ladies

Seattle Times