Reading Between the Lines

A day in the life of the news genre


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1. News is a story of crisis and emergency response.

The aftermath of a grisly multiple murder on a Long Island commuter train overshadows major national events. In keeping with the crisis theme, the story focuses not on the pro forma arraignment that was the day's main institutional event but on the threatening racial anger that apparently motivated the killer. The killer's note, in effect a press release describing his motives and seeking vindication, was disclosed by law-enforcement officials evidently persuaded that the note would vilify the killer, boost the odds of his conviction, and make them look good in the bargain. The story's focus on actions taken by newsmakers to turn public attention to private advantage is typical of the genre, in which fabricated events usually displace real ones.

2. News represents even routine institutional events as crises.

A technical financial study of the Clinton health plan is assimilated to the news genre's crisis format. This is done primarily by giving the story a high-ranking, front-page location, thereby endowing it with urgency and magnitude, and by focusing on a single aspect of the event that has strongly positive or negative implications for the community. In this instance, a study that appears to have been equally critical of and favorable to the Clinton plan is presented as mainly favorable. This emphasis, however, didn't persuade the editing staff, which wrote a headline expressing the opposite view of the report's central significance.

3. The news story is occasioned by an official proposal, action, or statement, which is reported largely on the newsmaker's terms. 

"Xerox announced" is the operative action here. The news story's ironically objective narrative voice prevents the reporter from describing the event on his own authority, and, as in this story, often leads him to adopt the specific words as well as general point of the announcement. Thus, the Time's headline and lead paragraph adopt the company's self-serving, euphemistic way of describing layoffs as "sharply cutting back their payrolls in an effort to become more efficient and improve profits."

4. The news story validates the newsmaker propaganda built into the fabrication it's about.

The video game manufacturers' announcement of an undefined and voluntary product-rating system, to be implemented sometime in the future, was meant to give the impression that government regulation of video-game content isn't necessary and that the industry is handling concerns about violent and sexual content by itself. This news report is replete with contrasting views and written with an astringent neutrality (as most of the stories on this front page are not), yet merely by virtue of focusing on the industry's fabrication, it reinforces the anti-regulation cause.

5. Some news stories don't fit the crisis-and-emergency-response mold.

Here, reporter Steven Erlanger got free of the usual formats and themes, spent some time observing and interviewing in Tomsk, and wrote a story that simply reported what he learned in his own voice and on his own authority. The result is a fascinating picture of change and continuity in Russian politics that is utterly free of the distortions engendered by the preconceptions of the news genre and its related dependency on newsmakers.