WORLD Magazine / Central Ideas / Appendix C
Methodological Notes


Rise of the Corruption Story

Macrostories in Conflict

Breakthrough of the Oppression Story


16th-,17th-, and 18th-Century Moral Tales
Journalism Historians and Religion
Methodological Notes
Defending the Corruption Story

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This book has narrated the history of three macrostories in American journalism from its European beginnings in the 16th and 17th century through 1917, when the impact of the Russian Revolution began to open up a new phase in journalistic perceptions. The coming together of the official story and the oppression story during recent decades is a phenomenon that needs more examination by both liberals and conservatives. But it is especially important that conservatives understand the historical significance of the corruption story, for there is danger that the right, in its battle against the capture of leading media by the left, will come to oppose investigation and exposure generally.

One of my goals in writing this book, therefore, has been to honor those who fought to establish the corruption story as journalistically valid; my hope is that in removing dirty bathwater and screaming babies we do not throw out the bathtub that some heroes of early journalism built. One of the most famous historical chapters of the New Testament-chapter 11 of Hebrews-describes the travails of "heroes of faith." We are told that "Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they were put to death by the sword." Those lines come near the end of a chapter that summarizes the stories of Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and others whose names have come down to us, and concludes with praise for many unknown soldiers as well. The first line of chapter 12 then gives the practical application of the long account: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverence the race marked out for us."

The early history of English and American journalism has its own great cloud of witnesses. Some were martyred in the belief that they should speak and write the truth revealed in the Bible, and in the faith that this truth would make them free. The names of some in the great cloud, and the means of their deaths, are included in the index. Other names in the index testify to the power of other world views; the index includes several references to technological developments, such as the "Hoe cylinder press," but the emphasis is on people, and the ideas that animated their lives.

This emphasis is deliberate. The traditional method of teaching history has involved storytelling about giants of the past whose lives provide lessons (of emulation or avoidance) for those in the classroom who will be the leaders of the future. There are dangers in the "great man" (or "great person") approach, but there are greater dangers when history is depersonalized. If we keep in mind the efforts of the past, we are more likely to realize our deep responsibility not only to those who come after us but to those who came before us. Furthermore, some of the difficulties of personal history can be overcome if we see journalists not as autonomous saints or sinners, but as proponents of macrostories that affected the way millions of readers and listeners viewed the world.

A narrative history of macrostory change intrinsically raises many methodological questions. After all, some researchers trained largely in quantitative methodology smell a rat unless there are numbers involved in a study. A quick way to deal with such objections is to counter them with the need to look for rats whether or not the numbers are present; just as seeing is not believing in an age of video wizards, so counting should not be believing at a time when statistical manipulation is rampant. But the question of numbers deserves something better than a flip reply; the introductions to two books published in 1988 presented deeper responses to potential critiques from those who demand numbers.

The first introduction, that of Charles Murray to his fine book In Pursuit, noted the old joke about a drunkard who drops his keys in one place but then looks for them under a streetlamp because "the light's better." As Murray then pointed out concerning analysis of social policy questions,

We have looked where the light is, and for modern policy analysis the light consists of quantitative analysis. I do not say this altogether critically: Give a policy analyst variables that can be expressed in numbers, and he has at hand, a powerful array of analytic tools to probe their meaning. a limitation-and it has become more and more confining over the years-is at so few of the intere ing variables in the social sciences can be expressed in n mbers. The more con licated the constructs one wants to examine, the less likely t they can be cr ed within the quantitative paradigms.[1]
At a time when many communications researchers have fallen in love with quantitative analysis, Murray's point needs strong emphasis: The important questions in journalism cannot be dealt with satisfactorily through techniques of quantitative content analysis or survey research.

The other introductory note I like is a model defense of the qualitative approach. It was offered by Joshua Muravchik at the beginning of his monograph, News Coverage of the Sandinista Revolution:

A more formal or quantitative method is often regarded as lending objectivity to a study, but in this case I think it would have had the opposite effect . . . . Any quantitative analysis would entail assigning news stories to categories that could be counted, categories like 'pro-Sandinista' and `anti-Sandinista,' or more complex or sophisticated ones. But whatever the categories, the reader without access to my files would have no independent means of evaluating whether I had assigned stories fairly. In contrast with the common-sense discursive approach that I have employed, any skeptical reader can easily check to see whether I have quoted accurately and fairly or whether any of my generalizations are too broad.[2]
Similarly, I propose to anyone interested in further analysis of the macrostories: Crank the microfilm and see for yourself. It is good that, given justified concern about the potential plasticity of historical narrative, storytellers can only gain reader confidence the old-fashioned way: By earning it. It is good to treat even historians with a reputation for accuracy to the slogan of recent disarmament talks: "Trust, but verify." It is important to demand from writers considerable quotation and other specific detail to back up arguments, along with full footnoting so that fancy footwork can be examined, if necessary.

But those are not the only checks on subjectivity run amuck. The concept of "macrostory," which is based on the integration of existing ideas concerning "narrative framework" and "world view," provides a structure of analysis that allows us to see and keep records of the ways that world views interact with journalistic coverage.

Narrative framework (known to language patricians as "archetypal framework" and to plebians as "story formula") is something that every reporter learns on the job, if not before. Almost every thoughtful journalist has stories of how the lesson is taught; a good one was told by Robert Darnton, a reporter who later became a history professor. When he was a police beat novice on the Newark Star Ledger in 1959, Darnton wrote a straightforward story about a boy whose bicycle had been stolen in the park. When he showed the story to an older reporter, the veteran told him, "You can't write that sort of story straight," and proceeded (making up detail when useful) to show Darnton how a pro would handle the theft:

Every week Billy put his twenty-five-cents allowance in his piggy bank. He wanted to buy a bike. Finally, the big day came. He chose a shiny red Schwinn, and took it out for a spin in the park. Every day for a week he rode proudly around the same route. But yesterday three toughs jumped him in the middle of the park. They knocked him from the bike and ran off with it. Battered and bleeding, Billy trudged home to his father, George F. Wagner of 43 Elm Street. "Never mind, son," his dad said. "I'll buy you a new bike, and you can use it on a paper route to earn money to pay me back.[3]
Darnton, after finding facts to fit that formula, had his first byline, a frontpage story. Soon the commissioner of parks announced that the park would have additional security, and neighbors were collecting money to buy Billy a new bike. As Damton recounted, "I had struck several chords by manipulating stock sentiments and figures: the boy and his bike, piggy-bank savings, heartless bullies, the comforting father."[4]

The implications of "narrative framework" for concepts of journalistic objectivity were discussed intelligently by NYU professor Mitchell Stephens in his book published in 1988, A History of News. Stephens wrote that "journalists' supposed objectivity" is:

compromised by the narrative frameworks they impose on their stories-their decision, for example, on which combination of formulas a particular crime might be made to fit: woeful victim ("his life savings"), noble victim ("a former Boy Scout"), tearful relatives ("their only child"), twist of fate ("had his car not been in the shop"), awful irony ("scoffed at fear of crime"), despicable criminal ("despite the victim's pleas"), psychologically scarred criminal ("abandoned by his parents"), shocked acquaintances ("seemed such a quiet boy"), the wages of poverty ("unemployed for seven months"), the scourge of drugs ("to support his habit"), or the breakdown of societal values ("the fourth such crime in this month"). Most events provide sufficient facts to support a multiplicity of possible formulas; journalists choose among them.[5]
Stephens' point was good, but he did not follow through on the question of why journalists choose one narrative framework and not another. To go deeper, we need to understand the nature of "world view"; essentially, world views are clusters of convictions and values not verifiable by the means of natural science. Every person, whether religious or atheistic, has a world view. When astronomer Carl Sagan says there is only the cosmos and nothing beyond it, we need to ask him how he learned that. We will find that he did not discover that by peering through a telescope, but by certain assumptions or presuppositions that he brought to his telescope. Similarly when psychologist B. F. Skinner says that human beings are made solely of matter, and that we think with our bodies because bodies are all we are, we need to ask how he learned that. The answer he gives will have nothing at all to do with science; it is as much a matter of faith as anything Jerry Falwell says. The scientists who hold to these beliefs hold them sincerely, no doubt, and they often believe that those who do not agree with them are primitive or foolish or blinded by religious dogma-but they still hold them as matters of faith.

If this is true of "hard science," it is even more evident in that "social science" known as policy analysis. As Charles Murray has noted:

Policy analysis is decisively affected by the analyst's conception of human nature. One may consider a government policy to be practical or impractical, safe or hazardous, only according to one's conception of what is good for humans, and that in turn has to be based on one's conclusions about the potentials and limitations of humans acting as social creatures.[6]
Journalistic coverage is similarly affected; to show that, we might look at several modes of coverage.

First, say a journalist is writing about foreign policy issues that include questions of disarmament treaties, defense spending, and so on. Journalists who believe that leaders across the world naturally want to avoid war but are forced into it through mistrust or institutional problems will emphasize attempts to change the institutional framework through restraining arms production, eliminating military alliances, deemphasizing nationalism, having more negotiations, and the like. This has been the predominant current framework within American journalism for many "in-depth" stories on such issues.

A journalist proceeding from a different view of human nature, however, might ask other questions: What if war is very natural, given man's greed for power? What if some leaders see war as a permissible way to gain more power, in the belief that they can achieve victory without overwhelming losses? Of course, history is full of mistaken calculations of that sort-dictators have a tendency to overrate their own power-but they may still plunge ahead unless restrained by the obvious power of their adversaries. Journalists who do not assume a benign human nature concerning warfare would emphasize inquiry into whether steps were being taken to raise the cost of war to potential aggressors, and whether those dictators might be overthrown by popular upheaval. For these journalists, the most important news would involve plans for military preparedness and alliances, specific evidence concerning the evil of dictators and the possibilities of overthrowing them, attempts to arouse the public, and so on.

Stories concerning domestic crime also are tied to world views. A journalist who believes that man is naturally good but is corrupted by societal pressures will also believe that criminals are often driven to their crimes by some external cause, often an institutional failure. Criminals are victims. They have been treated badly and have thus deviated from their true natures. They deserve sympathy, not punishment. Murder is due to circumstance; executions are thus unfair. Journalists with such beliefs will want to stress the socioeconomic "reasons" for crime. They will produce stories about reducing crime by spending more money on early childhood education so that potential criminals get off to a better start. We are seeing many such stories now.

On the other hand, those who see the committing of crimes as part of human nature, unless people are restrained by man's force or God's grace, will see the individual as responsible. They will emphasize the need to take hard steps to cut down on crime, and to pray for spiritual change. They will argue that crime must always lead to punishment, both because criminals deserve such a reward and because punishment is a powerful force in keeping people from doing what they want to do.

We might also look briefly-and all these glances are brief and simplifyingat stories concerning economic inequality. Some say that when there is inequality, government should try to end it; journalists who believe this will construct stories, in which people call for action of some sort; any inequalities are instances of wrong doing that should be exposed and challenged. On the other hand, those who see equality of process (e.g., a ban on discrimination by race) as essential, but do not demand equality of result, are likely to produce stories that emphasize individual entrepreneurship rather than societal "oppression."

World views are influential not only in coverage of political matters but in those soft features known as "lifestyle" stories. The Austin American-Statesman, for example, has regularly praised thinkers and writers who argue that life is best when we follow our natural instincts and are not "repressed"; the goal, as one article advised, should be to "follow your bliss." An alternate view suggests that we learn not to be ourselves, but to be better than ourselves; such a view, which pokes fun at our belief that whatever we want to do is right, does not receive much favorable press. Larry McMurtry noted even in the 1970s that:

One seldom, nowadays, hears anyone described as 'a person of character.' The concept goes with an ideal of maturity, discipline and integration that strongly implies repression: people of character, after all, cannot do just anything, and an ability to do just about anything with just about anyone-in the name, perhaps, of Human Potential-is certainly one of the most moderne abilities.[7]
What is "character" to some is seen as "hang-up" by others.

These views of human nature tend to be consistent across the boundaries of particular issues: A journalist who sees aggression as something natural (and to be guarded against) in international relations is not likely to assume that crime arises merely from poverty. Nor is such a journalist likely to believe that it is generally best for desires to be met and restraints abolished. Such a journalist will not write from the assumption that people are naturally good but are oppressed by the institutions and other pressures around them.

The concept of macrostory, in short, cuts against recent ideas of journalistic objectivity by noting that reporters put news stories in narrative frameworks chosen in relation to world views.[8] However, the concept does not argue that there is no objective truth, nor does it argue that subjectivity reigns totally in modern journalism. It is important to distinguish between obligatory and discretionary coverage and writing. Obligatory stories are the occurrences that readers, within a particular media community and cultural framework, expect to see covered. Earthquakes, coach or car accidents, major fires and other local disasters, the death of kings and presidents, the doings of the rich and famousall are grist for a local publication's mill, almost regardless of its editors' and reporters' world views.[9] But journalists can and do deviate from obligatory coverage in three ways. They cover obligatory stories but delve deeper, particularly by asking "why." They choose to cover stories that do not demand coverage but that support their world view concerns. Or they do both by covering discretionary stories in depth.

Any story that goes beyond obligatory coverage becomes highly dependent on journalistic world views. As John Corry of the New York Times has noted, "There are fewer rules of pure journalism here than journalists pretend, even to themselves. Journalists, especially big-time journalists, deal in attitudes and ideas as much as events. "[10] That has been true throughout journalism history.

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1. Charles Murray, In Pursuit (New York, 1988), p. 16.

2. Joshua Muravchik, News Coverage of the Sandinista Revolution (Washington, DC:, 1988), pp. 56.

3. Robert Darnton, "Writing News and Telling Stories," Daedalus 104, 2 (1975), pp. 190-191.

4. Ibid., loc. cit.

5. Mitchell Stephens, A History of News (New York, 1988), p. 264.

6. Murray, op. cit.

7. Washington Monthly, May 14, 1975, p. 14.

8. As New York Times editor Lester Market has noted, "The reporter, the most objective reporter, collects fifty facts. Out of the fifty facts he selects twelve to include in his story (there is such a thing as space limitation). Thus he discards thirtyeight. This is Judgment Number One. Then the reporter or editor decides which of the facts shall be the first paragraph of the story, thus emphasizing one fact above the other eleven. This is Judgment Number Two. Then the editor decides whether the story shall be placed on Page One or Page Twelve; on Page One it will command many times the attention it would on page twelve. This is Judgment Number Three. This socalled factual presentation is thus subjected to three judgments, all of them most humanly and most ungodly made." [Market was quoted in William Rivers, The Opinionmakers (Boston, 1965), p. 43.

9. Some variation occurs, but the Austin American-Statesman ran basic, who/what/ where/when articles about a girl killed crossing a highway, an airplane crash in Dallas, a hurricane closing in on Galveston, a major decision by the city counciland if there were other newspapers in Austin, they would have done the same.

10. John Corry, TV News and the Dominant Culture (Washington, 1986).