THE production and distribution of the modern popular newspaper, which reckons its readers by the million, entails a vast expenditure of money and an elaborate business organisation such as only highly capitalised firms can afford. The intense competition for the pennies of the vast reading public created by compulsory schooling and for the patronage of advertisers, quick to sense the possibilities in wide-spread publicity, caused those newspapers which possessed insufficient financial backing to be eliminated or absorbed by their stronger rivals. The result is that most of the popular Press both in London and the provinces is in the hands of one or other of the great newspaper combines.
In judging the value of the news provided and the opinions expressed in the average popular newspaper, these are the first facts to be taken into consideration: the running of a newspaper is a business in the hands of private enterprise; being a business it must be made to pay its way; and its policy must be to maintain and if possible to expand its circle of readers, for only in this way can it continue to attract advertisements, without the revenue from which wide distribution would not be possible at a cost that the humblest pocket could afford.
What we are immediately concerned with is how these economic and other circumstances that govern the publication of a newspaper with a wide appeal affect the methods of presenting news and comment, and how these methods can be used, deliberately or otherwise, to take advantage of the suggestibility and other irrational tendencies of the reader.
I have pointed out how people are naturally suggestible to constant reiteration of the same statement. The use of this device to advocate a particular policy in one daily newspaper may or may not be successful. But a reader may see the same statement repeated, not perhaps in so many words, in an evening paper also and in several provincial papers; and if he is not aware that all these papers may be controlled by the same syndicate, he may be tempted to conclude that he has seen separate and independent testimonies to the truth of the statement.
One common journalistic device in the popular Press is the short, pithy and arresting headline. This in itself may have a suggestive influence. The fact that it is printed in bold type gives an impression of weighty importance. The reader is meant to assume that it gives a reliable clue to the core of the news printed below it. The busy or lazy reader often gets no further, or carries away with him nothing more than this ready-made summary. Even the more careful reader is sometimes tempted to do little more than read the headlines, for frequently after he has read a couple of short paragraphs of the news text on page 1, he is told to turn over to half-way down a column on page 3, and perhaps before he gets there his attention is distracted to something else. The headline, the short paragraph and the splitting up of items on different pages all tend to discourage concentrated reading and sustained thought. The introduction of one emotionally coloured word into a headline may beg the whole question; and the reader may at once come away with a biased view of whatever is reported: he is presented, in fact, with a ready-made opinion which saves him the trouble of thinking for himself. The headline may be deliberately tendentious: it may effectually disguise comment as news; and it may have the same suggestive effect as the confident, dogmatic assertion. News and comment may also be subtly mingled by the insertion of paragraph headings in the news column, and in other ways, so that the uncritical reader may fail to distinguish between them.
The ostensible object of a newspaper is to provide its readers with news. Exactly what constitutes news is a matter for the determination of the editor, who, in making his decision, has to take into account the general policy of his paper approved by his employers. But he also has to study the tastes of its readers, who have come to expect not only news, but also light reading and entertainment, besides the inevitable advertisements. The result is that news of serious matters of political, economic and social importance at home and abroad—the facts on which the conscientious citizen has to form his judgments—is apt to be crowded out to make room for more frivolous and perhaps more sensational material. Even when newsprint was cheap and plentiful, the disproportionate amount of space devoted to serious news was most marked; and nowadays when newsprint is dear and scarce and strictly rationed, the enforced restriction on the publication of such news is almost equivalent to the imposition of an unofficial censorship.
The task therefore that faces an editorial staff of selecting and compressing items from the spate of information on these topics that is bound to pour in every day from every quarter of the globe must be truly formidable; and to do it fairly, impartially, objectively and with a high sense of responsibility must be wellnigh impossible. Selection, as we have already seen, may result in 'special pleading'. The selection of one item in preference to another may give that item an altogether disproportionate emphasis and in the end result in giving a misleading or false impression. Suppression, the inevitable corollary of selection, may lead to serious distortion and misrepresentation. And in compression or 'boiling down' it is fatally easy, not only to over-simplify, and, by omitting the reservations to a carefully guarded statement, to turn it into a sweeping assertion, but also by wrenching words and phrases from their contexts, and by using words with an emotional content, to give to a summary a twist in some direction away from the objective truth.
In these last few paragraphs I have tried to draw attention to some of the ways in which careless and uncritical reading of a newspaper (or for that matter of any organ of publicity) may lead us astray. The credulous faith in the infallibility of the printed word may not be as common as it used to be: but the substitute for it is not a cynical scepticism that doubts the truth of everything publicised in print; and it has not been my object to foster such an attitude. It has rather been to try to open the reader's eyes to the difficulties of fair, accurate and objective reporting and to his own failings and deficiencies. If he learns to combat these, then-who knows—the popular Press may realise that it would be good policy to make a more determined effort not to run the risk of playing upon them.
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