Chapter 1
News and Society

Chapter 1 - News and society

This chapter introduces students to the concept of news, how it is produced and why it is important to our society. The concept of the "open society" is a particularly important one in understanding why news plays a vital function in our society.

The chapter discusses the importance of various types of news, including political, legal, business and sports news.

Study questions

Read the chapter with these questions in mind.
  • What does the story of how David Mattingly covered the events of September 11, 2001 tell you about journalism?

  • What is meant by an "open society"?

  • List the news values discussed in the chapter. What is meant by each?

  • List some of the reasons why news is important to society?

  • Journalists are supposed to serve as a "watchdogs" on government and other parts of society. What does that mean?

  • What are some of the pressures on journalists that the book discusses?

Chapter notes

David Mattingly, the CNN reporter (right) who is the focus of the story that opens the chapter, is a former student of the authors. He was in the author's news reporting class in the late 1970s as an undergraduate at the University of Alabama. You can find out more about Mattingly on the CNN web site ( anchors_reporters/mattingly.david.html).

News values. Students should learn the concept of news values and what each value means. Look at some news stories in your local newspaper or local news web site and decide what news values are present in these stories. Not every story contains all news values, but all of them are likely to have the value of timeliness. Timeliness is part of the definition of news itself.

Shared experiences. The book says that news depends on the "shared experiences" of the audience. What does this mean? What are the shared experiences that the students in your class might have had? Shared experiences are different from "unique experiences" -- those things that have only happened to us. Does anyone in your class have a unique experience?

Open society. The concept of the open society is worth spending some time on. What does an open society mean? Students may want to talk about what part of society should be open and what should not. How freely should information be available? There are many situations where an open society might or might not be a good thing. For instance, most of us expect our income taxes to be to kept confidential (and the U.S. Treasury has a very good record in that regard). But what about somebody who runs for public office? Should their tax returns remain confidential?

Politics. Much of journalism is about civic life -- in other words, politics. How interested in politics are the students taking this course? Many young people say that politics does not interest them. The presidential election campaign of 2004 seemed to run counter to that trend, however. It would be interesting to know how much the students in the class paid attention to that campaign and whether or not they participated in it.

What everybody talks about. A sidebar in this chapter is titled, "Everybody talks about the weather." In addition to the weather, what are some of the other things everybody talks about? One answer would be sports. If you are located close to a major college or university, you can't help talking about sports -- or hearing a lot about sports. But there are many other subjects that everybody talks about. Take a look at the web site for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press ( Pew commissions surveys regularly about what news Americans are paying close attention to.

Information or entertainment. Some commentators contend that the information function and the entertainment function of news are melding together. They point to highly publicized or televised trials, for instance, saying that such events morph quickly from news to entertainment. Talk about the most recent trial that was covered intensely by the news media. Did the coverage of that trial take it from being news to entertainment? The cable television channel that devotes most of its time to covering trials is Court-TV ( Check out that site to see the most recent nationally-television trial.

Journalistic conspiracy? Are journalists in a conspiracy to try to persuade the public to a certain point of view? The author tries to debunk that theory, but there may be those in class that still hold to it.

FOX-News and CNN viewers. This is interesting. The Pew Center (cited earlier) conducted a survey in October 2004 (in the middle of the presidential election campaign) in which it asked viewers of different news shows who they preferred as president. Here's how the center reported its findings:

    • Earlier this month, Pew found that the voting intentions of the election news audience were deeply divided according to where voters got their news. The current survey shows that gap remains substantial, with a large majority of the Fox News audience supporting President Bush and a comparable share of the CNN audience favoring Sen. Kerry.

    • Seven-in-ten voters who get most of their election news from Fox News support Bush, while just 21% back Kerry. By contrast, voters who get most of their election news from CNN favor Kerry over Bush, by 67%-26%.

    • Other news audiences are more closely divided. Kerry has a modest advantage among voters who mostly rely on network news and newspapers. Voters who get most of their election news from local TV are split, with 46% supporting Kerry and 42% Bush.

Is there a bias -- among the audience, not necessarily among the journalists?

Key concepts and terms

• News is the major product of journalism; news is information that journalists believe is important or interesting for their audiences.

Open society – a society in which information is exchanged with no or relatively little interference from the government or other organizations that control the norms of society.

News values – characteristics of information that make an event or subject news; they include timeliness, conflict, impact, currency, prominence, proximity, and unusualness.

• News is one of the main ways in which a society examines itself; that examination provides an important means by which the society can find solutions to its problems.

• News helps individuals in society make decisions about their lives and actions.

Watchdog – the term given to the news media as an independent observer of other parts of society (government, business, educational institutions, etc.) to see that they are doing their jobs properly.

Bias – beliefs, attitudes and points of view that prevent journalists from evaluating and presenting information in a fair and accurate manner expected by the audience.

• News organizations have an obligation to present information to their audiences and to keep channels of communication in society open. They also have the added burden of maintaining their own economic health in a capitalist economic system.

Related web sites for Chapter 1

The Readership Institute

Web Credibility Project (Stanford University)

Committee of Concerned Journalists

Civic Journalism Interest Group

Community Journalism Project

Pew Center for Civic Journalism


Section I | 1: News and Society  |  2: Culture of Journalism  |  3: Becoming a Journalist
Section II  |  4: Newspapers  |  5: Magazines  |  6: Television and Radio  |  7: News Web Sites
Section III  |  8: Reporters  |  9: Reporting  |  10: Writing news and features  |  11: Style  | 
12: Editors13: Editing and headline writing  |  14: Visual Journalists  |
  15: Graphics Journalism  |  16: Photojournalism  |  17: Publication Design  |
  18: Broadcasters  |  19: Writing for Broadcast
Section IV  |  20: Beginnings of Journalism  |  21: Journalism Comes of Age  | 
22: New Realities, New Journalism  |   23: 20th Century and Beyond
Section V  |  24: Law and the Journalist  |  25: Ethical Practices  |   26: Present and Future
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