What is the role of the news media in society?
The answer to this question depends on the society we are talking about. There is no one universal model of the news media. In the article, I will look at five main models:
- The Free Press Model
- The Propaganda Model
- The Commercial Model
- The Combined Model
- The State Model
1. The Free Press Model
To start with let’s look at the Free Press Model—it is considered the ideal for the news media in western liberal democracies. In this model, the news media typically has five main roles:
- Information Provider: To give information to the public so that people know what is going on in their community, their nation and around the world. People can then use this information to make better choices. For example, before an election, people can learn more about the platforms of different politicians, and this can help them vote more wisely.
- Information Gatekeeper: To serve as a kind of information gatekeeper. News organizations can filter out false information, gossip and harmful propaganda and instead publish information that is based on fact. With the rise of social media, this gatekeeper role is even more important as news organizations can help people sort through the massive amounts of often contradictory information they receive online.
- Advocate for Change: To push for social, economic and political change. The media can shine a light on problems faced by society—like racism or homelessness—and suggest ways to solve those problems. The press may thus have an influence on government policy.
- Watchdog: To serve as a watchdog—to keep an eye out for abuses of power. The media can expose unfair business practices or violations of rights, and it can help monitor the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government. In this role, the media serves as part of the system of checks and balances that is considered essential to the western concept of democracy.
- Community Platform: To provide a voice to the community. News organizations can give readers, listeners and viewers a platform to actively comment on current affairs. This can be done through things like interviews with members of the public, call-in radio shows, letters to the editor and online comments.
A sixth role that is often mentioned is entertainment, but for this article I will focus on the rive roles listed above.
In order to fulfill the five roles of the press in this model—information provider, information gatekeeper, advocate of change, watchdog and community platform—effectively, the news media must have a few qualities, namely:
- The reporting must be accurate and impartial; and information should be confirmed and fact-checked before being presented to the public
- There must be editorial independence
- There must be a clear distinction between different kinds of content such as fact-based articles, opinion-based editorials and sponsored content.
- Opportunities to express ideas should be given to different voices and to people that are representative of society as a whole
2. Influences on the News Media
The Free Press Model, however, is very simplistic. It assumes that the news media is mostly free from outside influence. In reality, there are many forces that can shape and influence the news.
- Advertisers & sponsors
- Sources (press agencies, businesses and government departments, intelligence services, other media outlets, think tanks, human rights groups & other non-governmental organizations, eyewitnesses & experts)
- Financial & logistical considerations
- Cultural & ideological narratives
- Audience expectations
- Social media & other competitors
- Personal biases
First, there is ownership. Media owners can include:
- Multinational corporate conglomerates like Warner Brothers or Rupert Murdoch’s News Corps
- National media networks like the Sinclair Broadcast Group in America
- Media moguls like Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong and Viscount Rothermere in Britain
- Even religious sects like the Falun Gong, which publishes the Epoch Times and runs NTD (as well as a host of other outlets)
Many news organizations do have clear editorial biases. Fox News in the US, for example, was founded to provide a voice for American conservatives. MSNBC, on the other hand, appeals more to American liberals.
Media owners have power over things like hiring practices and editorial policies of the news organizations they control. And if they want, they can order a particular story to be published or abandoned. For example, here is a compilation of local news broadcasters in the Sinclair Broadcast Group parroting a political message from the owners:
Governments can also be media owners. For example, the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia are run by the US federal government. The majority of funding for the BBC comes directly from British taxpayers via a television licensing system, but it is the British government that controls the licensing system and appoints the head of the BBC.
2.2 Advertisers and Sponsors
Second, there are the advertisers and sponsors. If a news organization heavily depends on advertising and sponsorship revenue, major advertisers and sponsors can also influence what stories get printed, what stories get buried and how certain issues are reported. Here is one example: In 1997, at the request of one its major advertisers—Monsanto—Fox News pressured two of the reporters at its affiliate station WTVT-13 to change their story on one of Monsanto’s growth hormones and add false information to the planned article. When the two reporters—Jane Akre and Steve Wilson— repeatedly refused, they were fired and the story was killed (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Akre).
The influence of advertisers on the media can be more subtle. In a study of the news media in Argentina, researchers found that as government spending on advertising in newspapers increased, the amount of front-page space given to coverage of government scandals decreased (www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w15402/w15402.pdf). Similarly, in another study, it was found that news coverage about automobile recalls from given manufacturers decreased when advertising spending from those manufacturers increased (www.eui.eu/Documents/DepartmentsCentres/Economics/Seminarsevents/Durante-paper.pdf). In both of these cases, newspapers still covered negative news involving their advertisers; they just did it less frequently or less noticeably.
Another way in which advertisers influence the news is in the form of advertorials. These look like the publication’s articles, but are actually advertisements. Usually, this is acknowledged as an ‘advertorial’ somewhere on the page, but it is not always obvious.
Then there is crowdfunding. Nowadays, there are quite a few crowdfunded media organizations that pride themselves on their independence. However, their financing largely relies on meeting the expectations of their audience. If the Grayzone starts publishing articles in favor of American interventions overseas or if the Hong Kong Free Press starts publishing articles critical of Hong Kong protesters, they will likely see much of their funding disappear.
A third influence is related to sourcing, that is, where the news actually comes from. Much of the news comes from a variety of sources, including:
These companies provide licensed content that can be directly inserted into a publication or that can be combined with information from local reporters. The largest press agencies—United Press International (UPI), the Associated Press (AP), Agence France Press (AFP) and Reuters—provide around 90% of international news in a typical newspaper. Of course, when looking at press agencies, you also need to consider the issues of ownership and bias.
A group called Swiss Propaganda Research investigated how, during a two-week period, nine leading newspapers from Germany, Switzerland and Austria reported on the conflict in Syria. The researchers found that out of 381 articles published during those two weeks, not a single article was the result of direct investigation by any of the newspapers’ reporters. Instead, 78% of articles were based whole or in part from press agency reports (swprs.org/the-propaganda-multiplier/). The researchers also found that the reporting was biased. 82% of all opinion pieces and interviews provided by the press agencies were in favor of US and NATO intervention, and when the negative word ‘propaganda’ was mentioned it was only used to describe information from the opposing side.
The big issue with press agencies is that because their articles are published in thousands of newspapers, any inaccurate and/or biased material produced by press agencies can end up being quickly spread around the world.
Government departments, major corporations and local businesses
These sources can provide press briefings and press releases or can just insert their content directly into news publications in the form of sponsored articles known as advertorials. Here is one example from the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong’s leading English newspaper). An opinion piece suggesting Reading, England as a potential destination for Hong Kong holders of the BNO passport is written by Raymond Chong, the managing director of a brokerage, Star Property Agency, that (what a surprise!) just happens to be selling property in Reading to Hong Kong people. This is a case of a company directly inserting favorable content into a news publication.
That is a very small-scale case, though. Governments can spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to influence the media. For example, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill (The Strategic Competition Act of 2021) in which 300 million dollars per year for five years is to be devoted to countering Chinese influence, with 1/3 of that to be devoted largely to spreading negative media coverage about China. Here is a clause from the bill that specifies how a part of the money will be used:
There is authorized to be appropriated, for each of the fiscal years 2022 through 2026 for the United States Agency for Global Media, $100,000,000 for new programs to support local media, build independent media, combat Chinese disinformation inside and outside of China, invest in technology to subvert censorship, and monitor and evaluate these programs.
How would this money be spent? Here is one example: The Herald, a newspaper in Zimbabwe, reported on a program run by Information by Development Trust (IDT) and sponsored by the American Embassy in Harare. Participating journalists were instructed on how to produce negative news stories about Chinese investment in Zimbabwe and were promised 1000 USD for each negative story produced (US Plans to Discredit Chinese Investment Unmasked).
This kind of government propaganda campaign is typically conducted through government-funded media organizations (e.g. Radio Free Asia), intelligence agencies, non-governmental organizations and think tanks.
Spy agencies can supply a mixture of real and false news and can also directly recruit reporters and editors as assets. In a 1977 article in the Rolling Stone, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein stated that at that time, around 400 reporters were doubling as operatives for the CIA. Their investigations confirmed the role of American intelligence agencies in manipulating the media that came to light during the hearings of the Church Committee (AKA the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities) in 1975. In this video interview from 1983, former CIA agent John Stockwell describes how he oversaw media campaigns for the CIA. The interview is from ‘Vietnam Reconsidered, Lessons from the War at the University of Southern California, USC’. The part on the media begins at 1:50.
Other media outlets
Smaller newspapers often use material from more prestigious papers such as the New York Times or government-run organizations like Radio Free Asia.
Think tanks, human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations
These organizations usually claim to be independent, but they are often heavily funded by governments, defense contractors, other major corporations and government-funded organizations like America’s National Endowment for Democracy. For example, the ‘independent’ Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) is funded mainly by the Australian Department of Defense with additional funding coming from entities such as the US State Department, the US Department of Defense and NATO as well as weapons manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northropp Grumman, Naval Group Australia and Thales. You can see this thread on Twitter for a look at some of the funding behind NGOs that frequently appear as news sources: twitter.com/catcontentonly/status/1343282499833765890.
Eyewitnesses and experts
Some eyewitnesses and experts are credible and impartial, while others and are fake or biased. The most famous example of a fake eyewitness is Nayirah al-Ṣabaḥ, who in 1990 tearfully testified that she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers in a Kuwaiti hospital stealing incubators and leaving premature babies on the floor to die. Her testimony, which was supported by Amnesty International, was used to encourage support for the American invasion of Iraq. It wasn’t until 1992 that it was discovered that she was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to America and that her testimony was part of a public relations campaign run by the American public relations firm Hill & Knowlton for the Kuwaiti government. There was no evidence that any incidents like that had actually happened and Amnesty International issued a retraction.
By the time Nayriah’s identity had been revealed and her testimony debunked, the First Gulf War had ended.
Another famous case of fake eye-witnesses is Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari, a blogger who went by the username A Gay Girl in Damascus and who advocated for increased civil and political freedom for Syrians. She was interviewed by media outlets such as CNN for her insights as a young openly gay woman living in an Islamic country. In 2011, someone claiming be her cousin reported that she had been kidnapped by government agents. Her kidnapping prompted an international outcry; however, it turned out that the blogger was, in reality, Tom McMaster, a middle-aged, straight American man living in England.
Similarly, in 2020 it was revealed that Kong-Tsung Gan, who had claimed to be someone of Chinese ancestry who had grown up in Hong Kong and who had been interviewed by numerous media outlets for his views on Hong Kong politics and protests, was an American (and very Caucasian) man called Brian Kern (www.thestandard.com.hk/section-news/section/11/221905/Unmasked-Chinese-fake-quits-HK—but-keeps-phony-persona).
Then there is the case of the Uyghur activist, Rushan Abbas, who is a completely real person. However, she has worked for the American military as a consultant at the notorious Guantanamo Bay site as well as working for various other American government departments and intelligence agencies. Can she really be considered an impartial and credible source? (www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/e9ad4n/i_am_rushan_abbas_uyghur_activist_and_survivor_of/)?
Eyewitness evidence and expert testimony can be very compelling, but it is clear that news organizations are often not very careful when it comes to confirming the identities, backgrounds, motivations and stories of their experts and eyewitnesses.
All these different kinds of news sources can be linked together like a kind of chain. For example, a small local newspaper in Cleveland might run an article that is mainly based on an Associated Press report of a Radio Free Asia interview with a representative of a think tank that is primarily funded by the American government, with the interview being set up at an event organized by the US State Department.
This use of regurgitated content from third-party sources can help make the news gathering process more cost effective, but it can also lead to a lot of propaganda and false information getting published.
The use of chains of third-party sources also means that potential conflicts of interest often go undeclared and unnoticed. For example, in the article ‘Rappler: Philippines orders shutdown of Maria Ressa’s critical news site’ (www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-61976456), the BBC reports that a newspaper in the Philippines was ordered to close because its funding from the Omidyar Network (a company set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar) was alleged to be in violation of the country’s media laws. In the article, the BBC cites two sources to highlight how ‘unfree’ the Filipino news media is. The two sources are Reporters Without Borders (RWB), which is partially funded by . . . Pierre Omidyar, and Humans Right Watch (HRW), which receives regular donations from . . . Pierre Omidyar. Nowhere in the article are the links to Omidyar and RWB and HRW mentioned. There are no other sources (besides Rappler staff) included in the article.
2.4 Financial & Logistical Considerations
One important factor that should not be overlooked when discussing the news media is the financial pressure involved with running a news organization. Any measure that can save time and money has to be considered, and this can have a great effect on sourcing. For example, if you take a government press release about a new policy and edit it slightly, you can produce a news story in a few minutes. If the government then holds a press conference, you can send a small news crew there to get a quick soundbite. A national newspaper or TV network will have staff in the nation’s capital, so everything can be done in a few hours. However, verifying all those pesky details in the press release might take days or even weeks or months. And interviewing people who would be affected by that new policy—people who might be several hundreds of kilometers away in a remote town—can be time-consuming and expensive. As a result, in this case, when the story is finally put together and published, it will likely favor the government’s point of view simply because of how much easier it was to get information from the government.
Similarly, many local newspapers have a reporter that focuses on local crime. The reporters on the crime beat will have established relationships with police officers and police spokespersons, so they will normally get information from these sources first, and then it is up to the reporters and their editors to decide how much time and effort will go into doing things like tracking down and interviewing eye-witnesses. In many cases, the decision will simply be to save time and money and go with the version of events presented by police. In this way, the basic logistics of running a news organization can affect what stories get told and who gets to tell them.
Financial considerations and logistics can therefore also affect sourcing. It is often more cost-effective for news organizations to simply run what they get from their usual sources and press agencies without having their own reporters fully investigate the story.
A fifth influence is ‘flak’. If any individual or group is powerful enough to cause problems for the media organization by suing it, removing its license or organizing boycotts, editors may think twice before publishing anything negative about that person or group. Noam Chomsky calls this kind of threat ‘flak.’ One good example of this is the pressure from tobacco company Brown & Williamson (B&W) on television network CBS to kill off a planned story on the company’s use of ammonia to increase the addictive effects of nicotine in its cigarettes (www.vanityfair.com/magazine/1996/05/wigand199605). CBS did kill the story at first, but the story was eventually published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and then by CBS itself. B&W’s efforts to kill the story formed the basis of the film The Insider. One important thing to note in this case is that B&W did not actually threaten to sue CBS. CBS killed the story simply because its legal team feared that there COULD be a lawsuit if the story was broadcast.
Flak can also come in the form of fear of legal persecution. For example, in 2022. Alina Lipp, a German reporter covering crimes by Ukrainian forces against citizens in the Donbass, a region consisting of two republics that broke away from Ukraine in 2014, was notified by German authorities that she would be subject to up to three years imprisonment if she returned to Germany. The punishment is for ‘supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine’ and she would not be allowed to state her case in court proceedings (www.indiatoday.in/world/story/-german-journalist-detention-ukrainian-crimes-donbass-1973896-2022-07-10).
2.6 Cultural & Ideological Narratives
A sixth kind of influence concerns the beliefs and narratives that are predominant in a society. For example, in America, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of individualism and personal rights, and there is also a strong antipathy towards communism, socialism and authoritarianism. There is a strong belief that the freedoms offered in America allow anyone to succeed in life through hard work alone (a belief called the American Dream). These kinds of ideological beliefs can color the news published by American new organizations. In the 1980s, there was a strong bias in the American mass media against Japan, which at the time was beginning to threaten America’s economic dominance, and against the Soviet Union, which was a solcialist superpower. Today, there is a strong bias against China. The following magazine covers are representative of the mainstream media’s mainly negative portrayal of China:
The above headlines and illustrations tend to combine elements of both ‘Red Scare’ (a fear of communism: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Scare) and ‘Yellow Peril’ (a perception that devious Asians threaten the Western world: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Peril). At times, the designs used in the media’s depiction of China is reminiscent of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda (see below), but with a LOT more red in the design.
Let’s look at one obvious example of a simple news story being affected by an Anti-communist ideological filter. In the summer of 2020, a Chinese businessman suggested that people use a method to prevent food waste when eating out. He suggested that the number of dishes ordered should be one fewer than the number of diners in the group. Chinese government officials heard about this suggestion and then stated that they thought it was a good idea. They suggested that people should consider adopting it and should think of even more ways to reduce food waste.
However, this simple suggestion from the government was reported by CNN as a totalitarian regime’s ironfisted attempt to dictate what people are allowed to eat (edition.cnn.com/2020/08/28/asia/china-xi-jinping-clean-plate-campaign-dst-intl-hnk/index.html).
The article was full of words carrying negative connotations that play on the West’s image of China as an Orwellian dystopia:
- drastic measures
- threatened food bloggers
- one intrusion too far into into citizens’ increasingly surveilled personal lives
- fear of an official backlash
- yet another political limitation on their everyday lives
- censoring political discussion
- 20 million surveillance cameras
- China’s authoritarian system
- local governments have expanded their surveillance
- encouraging citizens to report each other
- China’s agriculture sector is reeling from a series of natural disasters
- threw the country’s agricultural sector into chaos
- according to the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily
It is only at the end of the article that the following quote appears to provide some semblance of balance, with one expert saying, “The truth is, the implementation won’t be very strict.” Aside from that one interviewee, ALL the other interviewees pointed out various problems with the waste-reduction schemes.
At no point in the article are the possible benefits of reducing food waste—like environmental protection or cost savings—mentioned.
This dystopia angle on that story was carried one step further by new agencies like Bloomberg, which stated that the food-waste ‘directive’ was evidence that the government was worried about food shortages and possibly even an impending famine (www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-20/xi-s-crusade-on-food-waste-triggers-rare-anxiety-over-supplies).
In reality, there was no government directive. There were no food shortages. There was no chaos. There was no famine. The media twisted something positive—a suggestion that people think of and implement ways to reduce food waste—into something dark and foreboding.
This kind of ideological filter has two main purposes.
- The first is to get the general public to approve of military action and/or economic sanctions against those countries considered enemies.
- The second purpose is to deflect attention from the failings of one’s own government and to present the existing political and economic systems as being the best ones possible. An American reading the CNN article about food waste in China, for example, is being encouraged to think something along the lines of ‘Wow, things aren’t perfect here in the US, but at least the government isn’t trying to control how much food I eat and the government isn’t watching me all day with cameras. And I don’t need to worry about starving to death in a famine. Thank God I live in America and not China.’
Earlier this year, I was wondering if there was ever a golden age of the media, an era in which the press was free from this kind of ideological filter. I decided to randomly look at stories from the past. This article, from the Seattle Times in 1911, was the first one I read:
It seems that ideological filters have always been in the media. The short article above is about how white men (‘Scandinavians, Germans and straight Yankees’) were being pushed out of doing business at the local city market by Italians (who do not appear to have been considered ‘white’ at the time) and ‘Asiatics’. There is a clear bias against the darker-skinned immigrant ‘others’.
2.7 Audience Expectations
A news organization’s audience can also influence the kinds of stories it publishes. If more people buy your newspaper or watch your news broadcast, you can earn more money, not only from sales, but also from advertising. Thus, there is pressure on news media organizations to publish news that sells well—for example, news that is shocking or entertaining or news that fits nicely with what the readers and viewers already believe. A story about a spat in Britain’s royal family, for example, isn’t very important, but it might help sell newspapers.
2.8 Social Media & Other Competitors
Another influence is social media, particularly in its role as a competitor to the traditional news media. If a story is hugely popular on social media, can the traditional news media afford to ignore it? And if an unverified story is already circulating online, can the traditional news media really waste time to confirm all the details before running the story? Wouldn’t it be easier to just run the story as soon as possible and then issue corrections afterwards if necessary?
This race-against-the-competition has always been there, but the pressure to deliver news stories quickly has been exacerbated by the rise of social media and 24-hour news networks.
Another issue is that people are increasingly getting their news via social media, so there is pressure on news organizations to create content that will appeal to the algorithms of social media giant like Meta (Facebook) and Twitter. A wordy and carefully balanced article is unlikely to be shared as much as a short controversial and opinionated article.
2.9 Personal Biases
Lastly, sometimes reporters and editors are simply biased, and their views affect the way they present their stories. Let’s look at one example of inaccurate and biased reporting from Hong Kong. In this article, reporters of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and RTHK criticized the Hong Kong government by claiming that the free food being provided to residents during a COVID-19 lockdown could not be opened as not everyone had can openers (www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/3119031/hong-kong-lockdown-residents-given-food-they). Their reports included eyewitness statements (see below) and photos. However, there was something wrong with the cover photo for the article. Can you spot the problem?
Congratulations if you found the problem.
All the cans had been turned upside down so that readers could not see the ring pulls that would allow anyone to easily open the cans.
After getting mocked on social media, the SCMP later removed the photo and issued a statement on its Facebook and Twitter threads for the article. In the apology, the SCMP attempted to shift the blame to a local anti-establishment politician, Frank Ho, who had supplied the photos. However, in the apology the SCMP editors seemed to ignore the obviously fake eye-witness statement that was also included in the article, and they also wrote that only ‘some of the cans’ had been placed upside down (when in reality, it was ALL of the cans). Did the ‘eye-witness’ quotes also come from Frank Ho? Does the eyewitness, Mohammad, even exist? In any case, either the reporters knew they were creating a fake story or they were happy to sign their names to an article cooked up by someone else. In either scenario, it was dishonest and biased reporting.
Of course, this is just a relatively minor news story, but when such inaccurate and biased reporting is repeated over a long period, it can affect the views and attitudes of readers, listeners and viewers.
To sum up, those five main roles of a free press—keep the public well-informed, act as a gatekeeper, encourage social change, serve as a watchdog and provide a platform for citizens to express their opinions—can be undermined and distorted by the influences mentioned in this section—ownership, advertising & sponsorship, sourcing, flak, ideological narratives, the audience, competitors (including social media) and personal biases.
These influences can affect:
- What stories are selected
- What stories are omitted
- Whose voices are given a platform
- What pictures and video footage are published
- What captions are given to the pictures
- What words are used in the article (e.g., ‘protester’ vs ‘rioter’ vs ‘activist’ vs ‘terrorist’)
- And even what grammar structures are used (e.g., ‘protesters set a store on fire’ vs ‘a store was set on fire’ vs ‘a store burst into flames’)
Examples of these different kinds of biases will be presented in another article.
3. The Propaganda Model
This more complex look at the news media and its many influences is beginning to resemble what Noam Chomsky calls the Propaganda Model of the mass media. In the Propaganda Model, the main role of the mass media is to get the general public to go along with with the economic, social and political systems that benefit those with power. In other words, the media is used to gain the consent of the general public for economic, social and political policies (both domestic and foreign) that will ultimately benefit the ruling class. In this model, Chomsky describes five ‘filters’ that influence the mass media:
- Ownership (see Section 2.1)
- Advertising (see 2.2)
- Sourcing (see 2.3)
- Flak (see 2.5)
- Anti-communism (this is related to the influence of cultural and ideological narratives mentioned in Section 2.6)
Even if we set aside Chomsky’s hypothesis that the main purpose of the media is to promote the interests of the ruling class, there is no denying the existence of the five filters of the Propaganda Model as well as the other influences mentioned in Section 2.
4. The Commercial Model
This model, which I am calling the Commercial Model, is slightly less cynical than the Propaganda Model. In this model, the primary role of a news organization is simply to make money for the owners. A news organization is a business, and like any other business, earning a profit is its main goal. In the Commercial Model, the press still has the five main roles of the Free Press Model but the reporting is susceptible to being influenced by the business demands of running a news organization, including:
- The need to attract readers/viewers (see 2.7)
- The need to attract advertisers and sponsors and keep them satisfied (see 2.2)
- The need to keep owners satisfied (see 2.1)
- The logistics involved with getting source material and independently verifying it (see 2.4)
- Time constraints and the need to stay ahead of the competition (see 2.8)
5. The Combined Model
Regarding the news media in America and other western countries, I would argue that these three models—the Free Press Model, the Propaganda Model and the Commercial Model—exist at the same time. A news organization may have complete editorial independence and unbiased, accurate reporting on one issue but very biased and deliberately deceptive reporting on another issue. And on yet another issue, economic and logistical constraints may lead the newspaper’s editors and reporters to unconsciously allow their story to be become distorted by biases.
Therefore, it might make more sense to think of the five roles of the Free Press model, the filters of the Propaganda Model, the influences of the Commercial Model and the additional influence of personal bias as being on a continuum, with the ideal of totally unbiased and honest reporting on one end and false and deliberately misleading propaganda on the other. Let’s call this model the Combined Model.
The big problem with this model, however is that the roles of the news media that make up the Combined Model—the Free Press Model, the Propaganda Model and Commercial Model—are very often at odds with one another.
6. A Case Study: Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction
One obvious example of the mass media failing to do its job properly (according to the Free Press model) was during the lead up to America’s second war with Iraq, the one that started in 2003. Before the war, the American government claimed that its intelligence services had found ironclad evidence that Iraq was developing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) such as chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The US government used this claim as justification to start a war with Iraq. After America invaded Iraq, however, it soon became clear that Iraq did not have an active program involving WMDs (www.nytimes.com/2020/01/29/magazine/iraq-weapons-mass-destruction.html).
In the several months leading up the war, most American newspapers and magazines supported the WMD myth and in their articles and editorials pushed for war. News organizations, including influential publications like the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Washington Post, reported the government’s claims and rationales without questioning or investigating them. Thus, the media—on the left AND the right—with the exception of a few organizations like Knight-Ridder, helped the government justify the war to its citizens.
Here is a front page story by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller from the New York Times reporting, without question, US government claims that Iraq was purchasing parts to build nuclear weapons. Note how the large graphic beside the article features two children in front of an American flag and a message commemorating the victims of the 9/11 attack. The implied message of the combined graphic and article is clear—to prevent another terrorist attack and protect our country and our children, we need to take action against Iraq (even though Iraq had no involvement in the 9/11 attacks).
In an editorial in the New Yorker entitled Making a Case, David Remick wrote:
“History will not easily excuse us if, by deciding not to decide, we defer a reckoning with an aggressive totalitarian leader who intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction but also to use them.”(www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/02/03/making-a-case)
In an editorial entitled Irrefutable, the Washington Post opened with this sentence:
“AFTER SECRETARY OF STATE Colin L. Powell’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council yesterday, it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”(www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2003/02/06/irrefutable/e598b1be-a78a-4a42-8e1a-c336f7a217f4/)
Even Time for Kids got in on the WMD action:
Soon after the war started, it became clear there were no active WMD programs in Iraq. The reason for going to war had been a lie, a lie that had been enthusiastically supported by most of the American mass media (limacharlienews.com/op-ed/how-media-sold-iraq-war/).
In a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), researchers looked at the 393 interviews about the potential for war with Iraq that had been broadcast on four influential news programmes (ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) during a two week period in 2003. The researchers found that 199 of the interviewees were either current or former American government or military officials and that 198 of these officials supported the war. Only 1 expressed skepticism or opposition. Other interviewees included Iraqi officials and former or current representatives of other governments. These interviewees provided more balanced opinions, but still tended to be supportive of the war. As FAIR reports:
‘’Yet, at a time when 61 percent of respondents in a CBS poll (2/5–6/03) were saying that they felt the U.S. should ‘wait and give the United Nations and weapons inspectors more time,’’ only 16 of the 68 U.S. guests (24 percent) who were not officials represented such views.”(fair.org/take-action/action-alerts/in-iraq-crisis-networks-are-megaphones-for-official-views)
After it was found that Iraq did not have WMD programs, some newspapers, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, admitted that their reporting on the lead up to the war had been poor (New York Times admission: www.nytimes.com/2004/05/26/world/from-the-editors-the-times-and-iraq.html; about the Washington Post admission: www.theguardian.com/world/2004/aug/13/pressandpublishing.usa).
However, nearly two decades later, the effects of the war are still causing huge problems for Iraq, which is still occupied by American forces. It is unknown exactly how many Iraqi civilians died in the war or in the conflicts that followed, but most estimates are at least in the hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have died at least in part because the press failed to carry out its ‘free press’ roles properly:
- The reporting was heavily biased in favor of war (thus failing in its role as information provider)
- The media reported false information as irrefutable fact (thus failing in its role as a gatekeeper)
- The media did not try to soften America’s aggressive foreign policy (thus failing in its role as an agent of social change)
- The media did not investigate the veracity of government claims (thus failing in its role as a watchdog)
- When selecting interviewees, the media did not give a voice to a representative sample of Americans—it favored those who supported the war (thus failing in its role as a platform for the community)
However, if we assume the news media is following the Propaganda Model, the American media’s coverage of the war could be considered a success. In a gallup poll conducted in May 2003, after military action had already begun, 79% of the Americans polled thought the Iraq War was justified, even without conclusive evidence of WMDs (web.archive.org/web/20180922202051/https://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A1155-2003May16/). In a 2015 poll, conducted over a decade AFTER the WMD claims had been discredited, 42% of the Americans (and over half of Republicans) surveyed believed Iraq did have an active WMD program leading up to the war (www.politico.com/story/2015/01/poll-republicans-wmds-iraq-114016).
If we assume the news media is following the Commercial Model, the American media’s coverage of the war was also a success. Due to the novelty of many of the televised elements—satellite images of missile strikes, real-time footage of battles and footage from journalists embedded with US troops—the war became something like a hit TV show, especially on cable news networks. According to the American Journalism Review:
“Tens of millions of viewers tuned to war coverage on the major networks, according to Nielsen Media Research. Cable, with its 24/7 coverage, was a big ratings winner. A Los Angeles Times national poll in early April showed that nearly 70 percent of Americans were getting most of their news about the war from cable. The Nielsen data showed that the number of average daily viewers for MSNBC and CNN increased more than 300 percent, while those for Fox rose more than 288 percent during the first two weeks of the war. Fox was the most-viewed cable news channel, averaging 3.3 million viewers per day. The highest-rated news program was “NBC Nightly News,” with more than 11.3 million viewers.(www.lehigh.edu/~jl0d/J246-06/Iraq%20War%20TV-AJR.htm)
In the end, the media’s push for war greatly benefited news organizations financially.
If we assume the news media is following the Combined Model, the American media’s WMD reporting show us how thoroughly a news story can get stage-managed by those in power. In this case, the free press roles were overwhelmed by the propaganda role (gain consent for war) and commercial role (make a profit).
The WMD reporting debacle highlights the importance of the news media in the US and also its shortcomings.
7. Lack of Trust in the News Media
At present, the mainstream press does not seem to be effectively fulfilling the five roles—information provider, gate keeper, advocate for change, watchdog and community platform—of the Free Press model. Consequently, trust in the news media in countries like America is extremely low.
- In 2021, Reuters Digital published research in which only 29% of respondents in America trusted the news media (reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2021)
- In 2021, a Gallup survey produced similar findings—with 36% of American respondents reporting trust in the news media (news.gallup.com/poll/355526/americans-trust-media-dips-second-lowest-record.aspx)
- In the Edelman Trust Barometer for the same year (www.edelman.com/trust/2021-trust-barometer), 45% of American respondents reported trusting the news media.
If trust in the media falls further, what will happen? Will the traditional news media become redundant?
8. The State Model
Let’s look at one more mass media model. In a country like China, which has a socialist and authoritarian government, the mass media follows a completely different model—I will call it the State Model—and in this model, the news media has two main functions that do not exist in the Free Press Model.
- First, the news media serves as a channel for the government to directly communicate its philosophies, plans and policies to its citizens.
- Second, the news media serves to promote unity, social stability, desired social values and social harmony
The other five roles—keep the public well-informed, act as a gatekeeper, promote social change, serve as a watchdog and provide a platform for citizens to express their opinions—are still there, but they are subservient to and cannot be separated from the above two main functions. For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, when the Chinese government was trying to pull the entire nation together, you wouldn’t find newspaper articles questioning government-mandated measures such as wearing masks and locking down entire cities of millions of people.
In this news media model, the watchdog role is limited. The media in China can report on corruption, but only up to a point—and definitely not if the central government thinks that the reporting might lead to social unrest.
The ‘shining a light’ role is also different from that in the Free Press model. Generally, the government in China finds out about problems via social media and through the various channels in which it collects direct feedback from its citizens. The government then decides how to address those issues, and then the media reports on what the government is doing or plans to do to solve the problem (and how citizens can help).
If you look at the news media in China and evaluate how well it functions according to the Free Press Model, you will see that it fails spectacularly. For example in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders (rsf.org/en/index), China ranked 175th out of 180 countries. However, you need to bear in mind that it is a completely different model. If you ranked the American news media on how well it promoted unity, social stability and social harmony, it would also rank very poorly indeed (It is also important to bear in mind that although Reporters without Borders claims to be independent it is largely funded by European governments and organizations like NED (the National Endowment for Democracy) and George Soro’s Open Society Foundation).
This State Model is not unique to China. For example, Singapore, which is a democracy, also has a tightly-controlled news media with a lot of emphasis placed on maintaining harmony between the country’s many different racial and religious groups. In addition, in the State Model, news publications are less uniform than one may think, with some publications leaning more towards political propaganda and others leaning more towards infotainment.
As the Chinese government has a lot of control over the media, does that mean the Chinese people are brainwashed? No. This is where a lot of observers get things wrong. The main point is that people in China understand that their media is following a different kind of model—and they are fully aware that some topics may be censored, that some information may be suppressed and that the information that is reported in the news is the information that the government wants reported. As a consequence, readers and viewers in China tend to be skeptical of the mass media. Chinese writer Ren Yi states:
“The truth is, people who live in a somewhat sophisticated authoritarian society, like China or the Soviet Union of the recent past, are more likely to have developed a cognitive condition better understood as cynicism – a proclivity for denial, rejection, doubt and non-belief, unless such information is checked and somehow verifiable. This actually makes them much more suspicious to one-way information, especially when it’s backed by the government.”(www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3034211/mainland-chinese-who-oppose-hong-kongs-protests-arent-brainwashed)
Ren Yi goes on to point out that to find out about what is going on, instead of relying only on official state media, Chinese citizens will access different sources of information, such as:
- Internet chat rooms and other social media platforms
- Western news sites that are not blocked by China’s ‘great firewall’
- Western news sites and social media platforms that are blocked in China (but that are still accessible using VPNs—Virtual Private Networks—which are used by many people in Mainland China)
However, if Chinese netizens visit a site like CNN or the BBC, they also tend to carry that skepticism and suspicion with them, and they will not automatically assume that whatever CNN and the BBC is reporting is the complete, unbiased truth. To them, the official mainland China news organizations have their preferred narratives, and news organizations like CNN or the BBC also have their own preferred narratives.
You might be wondering about the differences between the State Model and the Propaganda Model. In the State Model:
- Major corporations, wealthy media moguls, advertisers, sponsors and religious sects don’t have much, if any, influence.
- The fact that the government controls the media is explicit and well known. There is no pretense of having a completely free and independent press.
- There is much more emphasis on social harmony (with the avoidance of anything that might sow discord).
- Deliberate misinformation appears to be very uncommon. This is likely because if fake news is discovered, as it almost certainly will at some point, such a discovery will damage the government’s credibility. In the State Model, information may be withheld or presented in an overly positive light, but it is not normally completely fabricated.
Consequently, though people in China recognize that the official media is biased, they still tend have trust in it. In the previously mentioned Edelman Trust Barometer 2022, the figure for trust in government reported by Chinese respondents—80%—was the highest among all the countries surveyed (see the following charts).
There is a joke amongst Chinese netizens that goes along the lines of:
Chinese person: I’ve come to the US to learn how to do propaganda.
American person: But we don’t have propaganda in America.
Chinese person: Exactly! That’s what I want to learn!
The State Model of the news media would likely be incompatible with a liberal democracy as it would be at odds with the principle of free speech and it would severely weaken one of the checks and balances that are important in western democracies. However, it may suit societies that place more emphasis on social harmony and unity.
Which model is better? Personally I prefer the Free Press model as it allows for a wide variety of different views to reach the general public. However, how well do news organizations in countries like the US, Britain and Australia, actually follow the Free Press Model? Does the Free Press Model really exist or is it just an unobtainable ideal?
Another important question is whether some models work better in some societies. Is it possible that the Free Press Model is preferable in some societies while the State Model may be preferable in other societies? Therefore, rather than asking which model is the best, we may need to ask which model works best for that society.
Even if we go for the Free Press Model as an ideal system, we need to understand that media organizations do not always perform their roles effectively and responsibly. They often fall far short of the ideal. Thus, as news consumers, we have to be more skeptical of the information being presented to us by the mass media. We need to become wiser consumers of the news, we need to seek information from as wide a range of sources as possible and we need to push news organizations to better live up to the ideals of a free press.
If we accept that the Combined Model to be the norm—where everything in the news is on a continuum somewhere between objective truth and absolute dishonesty—how do we know what news to believe? How can we expect people to trust the media? And how do we give young people the skills necessary to identify bias and misinformation in the news media? These are three important questions for us to consider.
I took the black-and-white photos during protests in Hong Kong. You can see more photos and read about the protests in my articles:
- Photo Essay: Hong Kong Protests 2014: The Umbrella Movement
- The Hong Kong Protests of 2019-2020: An In-depth Analysis
Feel free to leave a comment below. Did I leave any points out? Do you have any examples of obvious bias? Which model best represents the press in your country?
~ by longzijun
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