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This past weekend I finished reading “Mediating the message,” a classic mass communication theory book that explores factors of the media environment that influence content. It was nice, then, when I saw on Sunday the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace, talking about his take on the source of the bias in news media.

While Wallace admitted to there being a conservative slant on FOX, he said it exists as a “counterbalance” to the mainstream media outlets, which he says display a liberal bias. Stewart disagreed, saying that perhaps MSNBC has become an outlet with a clear liberal slant (though only after the success of FOX’s business model), but most other news organizations have no clear political bias.

It seems what Wallace is trying to suggest that the liberal bias comes mostly from individuals acting as activists. Stewart, on the other hand, suggests aspects of organizational structure and routines that influence the content. “The bias of the mainstream media is toward sensationalism, conflict, and laziness,” he says.

In “Mediating the message,” authors Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese suggest a theory of influence on media content, focusing somewhat holistically on both micro- and macro-level factors. These factors exist, according to the theory, on five levels: individual, routines, organizational, extramedia, and ideological. Stewart’s last comment on the biases toward “sensationalism, conflict, and laziness” speaks to qualities that exist within several of these levels, and in most cases, they are very deeply embedded in the media outlets both hosts are discussing.

Let’s take sensationalism and conflict, for example. Most news organization — FOX News included — are vying for audiences that like entertainment programming and the easy-to-follow stories that go along with it. Or at least that’s what we think we know about them. So, we tend to gravitate toward coverage of stories that can be told in an narrative that has characters, conflict, etc. Take the Weiner coverage for example. Congressman does something devious, gets caught, lies, comes out with truth. That’s pretty easy to follow. There are characters. There’s a conflict. There’s a resolution. The end.

In fact, the structure is so biased to such coverage that after Anthony Weiner resigned, as Stewart mentions in his appearance on FOX, all of the 24-hour news channels went to Nancy Pelosi’s regularly scheduled press conference. They expected her to talk about the Weiner story, but when she said she wouldn’t be answering any questions about it and would instead be talking about jobs and Medicare, all the stations dropped the live feed.

I remember once in grad school in 2006 I was watching one of the cable news channels cover an insignificant story that had narrative appeal (I can’t remember the exact story). I asked myself when this all started, meaning when did journalism become so sensationalistic.  My roommate at the time (Nick Geidner, who is also a media scholar), always the comedian, decided to answer my obviously rhetorical question with a very short answer: “1994.”

What Nick meant was that 24-hour news showed its strength in the late 80’s and early 90’s with coverage of the Gulf War. After the war ended in 1991, audiences had fewer reasons to turn to the channel as much as they might have during the war. That is until 1994, and ensuring OJ Simpson mania. The realization that this new medium could cover even insignificant yet conflict- and narrative-filled stories all the time changed the nature of what news is. The Internet — and the so-called never-ending news cycle — has only exacerbated those routines. Jon Stewart on FOX News Sunday said something similar:

24-hour news networks are built for one thing, and that’s 9/11 and the type of gigantic news event that the type of apparatus that exists in this building and exists at the other 24-hour (news networks) is perfectly suited to cover.

In the absence of that, they’re not just going to say, ”There’s not that much that’s urgent or important or conflicted happening today. So we are going to gin up; we’re going to bring forth more conflict and more sensationalism because we want you to continue watching us 24 hours a day, seven days a week — even when the news doesn’t necessarily warrant that type of behavior.”

Wallace seems to think that the individual political perspectives of those who work at mainstream media organizations is liberal (maybe slightly, according to some research on the topic). What he fails to see, however, is that the other factors are far more influential on news content. It’s the heavily commercial structure of the media system, which values stories that produce more eyeballs regardless of their service to the public interest. It’s the routines of frequently using the same sources. It’s the technology that pushes us to get news out faster. It’s all of these factors and more influencing each other and, in myriad ways, content.

While Wallace is probably right that some personal political beliefs influence coverage, it’s the core parts of the media structure that more greatly affect what we see on the news. Of course, those antecedents are much more complex. And more difficult to blame so easily.

The central theme of the ICA convention this year was “Communication @ the Center.” A pretty obvious, yet intriguing point, that the process of communication (and subsequently what ICA members study) is truly at the center of most human activities. What this means is that not only is communication a part of everything else, but also inversely, everything else is part of communication.

I mention this because many of the journalism studies sessions at ICA (and other conferences and journals of late, academic and professional, for that matter) have focused on new players in the journalism world. These new players are citizen journalists (see my most recent post), opinion bloggers, public relations professionals, and very interestingly, comedians. Yes, it’s of little question that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have had some influence on how we think about journalism. After all, some (at least in academia) have suggested that studying such political satire is an important area of research. After all, the reason why I was at ICA was because of a paper on the Rally to Restore Sanity.

I attended a session on Sunday morning that included several panelists, including one (Geoffrey Baym, author of “From Cronkite to Colbert: The evolution of broadcast news”) whose presentation focused on Colbert’s testimony to Congress last September regarding U.S. agricultural jobs. Baym’s paper (“Politics and the performance of satire: Stephen Colbert’s Harvest of Shame”) compared that testimony to the 1960 Edward R. Murrow prime-time Thanksgiving-day documentary “Harvest of Shame,” which told the story of migrant farm workers.

Baym showed that most media coverage of Colbert’s testimony focused only on the novelty of the comedian testifying in front of Congress, with cable news shows and newspaper editorials asking whether it was appropriate for the comedian to be doing this. Many also focused on the merging of entertainment, journalism, and politics. Baym said, and I agree, that most news media framed the story as if news and entertainment are often distinct entities, when they themselves engage in entertainment-like performance.

Of course, Colbert’s testimony was funny, and he did make several jokes. But were those jokes meant to simply entertain, or were they meant to use political satire as a tool to poke at the errors in our food policy? More than likely, Colbert had multiple goals in mind, but I think that there was a public service mission high in his list of priorities.

Many professional journalists believe very strongly in the principle of independence, that that principle helps them tell the verified truth in a way that is loyal to citizens. But when we get news or civic-type information from non-traditional news sources, how do we evaluate the extent to which they serve a public service mission similar to that which was the cornerstone of modern journalism?

While most agree that it’s impossible for journalists — or anyone for that matter — to be objective, we still expect our journalists to be focused on one primarily goal: finding the truth. In other words, their public service IS providing the truth in a way that’s useful to citizens. One important question now is how do we evaluate the public service mission of non-journalists, who perhaps have additional goals beyond the truth.