Herbert Gans, Deciding What's News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time (Random House, 1979)
Paperback reissued in 1980 by Vintage Books
Written after the explosive media coverage of Watergate and the Vietnam War, Herbert J. Gans's Deciding What's News systematically examines domestic "news" as conceived, reported and transmitted by the major networks and weekly newsmagazines. Approaching the news from a sociological background, Gans attempts to discern our culture's mentality via the news it creates and digests. Gans uses empirical observations to describe what is "in the news"; suggest why it is so reported; and finally proposes other means of reporting it. Gans' thoroughness arises out of a conviction that journalists are powerful forces in America, subscribing to and crystallizing its dominant values of economy, politics and society.
Even though journalists attempt complete impartiality, especially by eschewing 'extremist' ideology, Gans contends that implicit values are inextricable from the news--even in terms of selecting stories, accessing sources, and asking certain questions. He cites upper-middle-class values of ethnocentrism, altruistic democracy, responsible capitalism, small-town pastoralism, moderatism, and order. In fact, the fascination with "disorder" news stories (disasters, protests, exposes) tacitly transmits a call to restoration. Gans discusses the structure of news organizations, criteria for story suitability (considering importance or interest), and journalists' symbiotic relationships with sources.
Several times, Gans likens journalism to turn-of-the-century Progressivism, with its aspirations of reform (pointing out again the stronghold of values upheld by the media--and built into the definition of news, despite its goal of detached objectivity). Gans lists some proposed functions of journalists, some credible (suppliers of political feedback) and some farfetched (storytellers and myth makers). He emphasizes the need for dramatic description in news to pique the attention of "lay" people, as distinct from academic experts who condemn the news as coarse and sensationalistic.
Gans concludes by stressing the need for multiperspectival news, to break the media's unwritten hegemony of values: less emphasis on government; more "bottom-up" news on how policies affect citizens; and an increased commitment to representational news, gauging and reporting on what matters to Americans from all walks of life.
Gans' findings are fleshed out with myriad anecdotes and examples from actual news reports of the 1960s and 70s, although the modern reader might find them dated. Though dense with text and often repetitive, the book does provide an interesting lens through which to view the "news"--and to understand how we, as journalists, select and pursue the stories we hope will sell (or will please our editors).
It's interesting to view Gans' studies after several decades of developments, such as the Internet and the PC movement. I would recommend skimming this book for an "aerial view" of the media, to remain cognizant of the forces and decisions at work in our industry.
"...a top job of 'writing down the unwritten rules of journalism'...Gans has taken a deep and penetrating look at how news is reported in our country and has come up with a significant and impressive analysis."
"An excellent study of the mass media, how it decides what is and what is not news, its limitations and its built-in biases. Required reading for media personnel..."
-Carey McWilliams, Editor, The Nation, 1955-75
"A refreshing view of journalism from a perceptive cultural sociologist's 'outside' perspective...[and]...a thought-provoking look at news as a cultural process."