Critcizing the Media: Empirical Approaches

James B. Lemert

Criticizing the Media is really all about criticizing the American news media. There is little, if any, reference to literature on the media outside the U.S. (though given the subject-matter, there is a large body of material that could have been made use of), and no attention is given to other forms of media than news, despite the fact that television, more and more the dominant news medium, is one in which news is incorporated into the overall flow of programming, and in a way that has begun to undermine the conventional separation of information and entertainment. In fact, Criticizing the Media takes no systematic account of the distinctions between types of news format (hard news, soft news, editorials, features, backgrounders, etc.). The news and the media are both, for the most part, treated as homogeneous forms.

The first half of the book is taken up with discussion of the theoretical and methodological issues relevant to news media criticism. Lemert identifies "four distinctly different schools of thought about the news media" (p. 26)--the Marxist, Cultural/critical studies, empirical research, and social responsibility criticism--concluding that the book is intended primarily to sing the praises of only one of these, "empirically based criticism" (p. 32), as the best tool for providing "constructive," i.e., practical, criticism of news media performance. What follows is a discussion of Lazarsfeld's distinction between administrative and critical media research. Although empirical research is conventionally associated with the former, Lemert argues, this does not prevent it from making important contributions to critical analysis by opening up new ways of interrogating media performance. An overview of various empirical methods and techniques of media analysis--content analysis, surveys, field experiments, etc.--and of the logic of analysis wraps up the first half.

The second half of the book provides a discussion of selected empirical studies of the news, though the coverage is uneven and tilts in the direction of studies undertaken by Lemert and his associates. Corporate deviance, presidential primaries, labour, rape, the environment, the effects of chain ownership, and "mobilizing information" (news-you-can-use for social and political participation) in the news are among the topics examined. The accent is primarily on news content, though inevitably the organizational structure and practices of the news media come into play as determinants of performance. This means a concern with news "bias," and Lemert makes the distinction between criticisms of "partisan" bias and of "structural and institutional bias." Partisan bias refers to political distortion--left/right, liberal/conservative--in news coverage, whereas structural and institutional bias denotes the ways coverage becomes slanted as the result of organizational practices, for example the reliance on official sources or the preoccupation with novelty and newness. Lemert is really more interested in the latter sources of news bias, and he dismisses most of the allegations of partisan bias as misplaced, but he doesn't explain why.

The main problem here, though, is that Lemert seems content to ignore the ways in which structural and institutional biases have what amount to partisan effects, as least in the sense of having systematic ideological and political implications quite apart from the conscious motives and interests of news producers. The structural and institutional factors producing biases are seen by and large as internal to media organization. The historical context and political economy of the news media are given short shrift, so the overall implication is that practical criticism simply has to come up with suggestions for new organizational procedures. Unfortunately, as the author admits in his discussion of American presidential election coverage, these changes seem to lie more in restructuring news events than in restructuring news coverage.

The distinction between partisan and structural bias lies in the way Lemert defines empirical research as one of four schools of media analysis and criticism. The problem with this scheme is not that the characterizations are caricatures (as the author himself admits), but that they are not distinguished in terms of the same logical criteria. Empirical research is not a school of thought about the media; it is simply a loose and general way of designating analytical practices that rely on gathering and interpreting data based on the systematic observation of concrete realities. Marxist, cultural/critical studies and social responsibility critiques of the news media have all to some extent used empirical research methods to ground their arguments and their claims. What they have not necessarily used, however, are empiricist and positivist methods of analysis--and this is what Lemert really has in mind when he speaks of empirical research.

Equating empirical research with empiricist research allows Lemert to ignore the political and ideological implicity of all forms of news criticism, and hide behind the kind of scientism that presumes that facts speak for themselves. Thus, he plays down or ignores the value and validity of empirical methods that do not fit the quantitative models of content analysis, experimentation or survey research. The case study is dismissed as anecdotal and no attention is given to the discursive and narrative structures of news coverage, and the ways in which meaning is actively constructed. News for Lemert consists of bits of information--included in and excluded from the coverage--which contain their meaning intact within themselves. The whole news is nothing but the sum of its parts and this can simply be expanded by getting the media to confront those missing angles, silences and avoidances that empirical criticism reveals.

There is real need for a good, comprehensive overview of the work that has been done, from all perspectives, on the critical analysis of news. Unfortunately, Criticizing the Media does not meet it.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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