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* REPRESENTING ORDER: CRIME, LAW, AND JUSTICE IN THE NEWS MEDIA by Richard V. Ericson, Patricia M. Baranek and Janet B.L. Chan (1991)

Richard Ericson was a criminologist who saw the news media as agents of social order. Aside from focusing on serious crimes, severe accidents and natural catastrophes, journalists perform their “watchdog” function by policing public institutions for signs of deviant behaviour. The misspending of  taxpayers’ money, controversial or unpopular political decisions as well as public figures who stray from common sense norms are grist for the journalistic mill. An astronomy professor who teaches her students that the moon is made of green cheese might attract journalistic attention. A prime minister who defends doubling the national debt certainly would. Disagreements among elite classes such as powerful politicians generates controversy, which is a staple of news. But where there is no debate among elites, such as, for example, over Canada’s abolition of the death penalty, there will be little or no news coverage about the pros and cons of capital punishment.

News dominated by “official” sources

Journalists’ reliance on institutional sources or “authorized knowers” such as elected politicians, government bureaucrats, public relations spokespeople, police, academic experts, officers of business organizations, think tanks and lobby groups, limits who gets to speak in the news. Members of the public may appear briefly during “vox pop” segments or “man-in-the-street” interviews, but news discourse is dominated by sources who have recognized titles showing a link to an established institution. This orientation to established institutions makes the mainstream news media essentially conservative institutions themselves. They tend to uphold existing power relations. They reinforce the status quo.

The news media focus on disorder and deviance to show how order may be restored. That is why, for example, journalists quickly begin raising questions about the causes of plane crashes to find out what went wrong and how a similar catastrophe may be prevented in future.

However, like the courts, the news media are not primarily oriented to detecting patterns such as, for example, how business class interests routinely affect political decision-making. Instead, journalists tend to focus on individual examples of disorder without drawing general lessons from them. This tendency reinforces the conservatism of news institutions.

Other books on media

Ericson’s books on the media are based, in part, on his studies of practices, procedures and coverage provided by mainstream media in Toronto. His first book was: “VISUALIZING DEVIANCE: A STUDY OF NEWS ORGANIZATION”  (1987). His second was “NEGOTIATING CONTROL: A STUDY OF NEWS SOURCES” (1989). All three were published by the University of Toronto Press.

The chart below summarizes some of Ericson’s main ideas about how the news media make disorder visible to their audiences.

Selected quotations

“The eighteenth century was the age for analysing society as a machine, the nineteenth century was the age for analysing society as an organism, and the twentieth century is the age for analysing society as a communications network.” Representing Order, (p.3)

“…deviance and control are the core ingredients of news…Deviance refers to the behaviour of a thing or person that strays from the normal. Here we are including as deviant not only serious forms of abnormal behaviour such as criminal acts, but also such behaviour as straying from organizational procedures and violations of common-sense knowledge.”–Visualizing Deviance, (pp. 3-4)

“Visualization–making something visible to the mind even if it is not visible to the eye–is the essence of journalism as method….Visualizing deviance and control…allows journalists to act as watchdogs, policing organizational life for deviations from their conceptions of the order of things. In turn, this watchdog role allows journalists to bring into relief the normal or expected state of affairs, acknowledging order and contributing to community consensus. The focus on deviance is also a primary vehicle for entertaining the consumer and evoking emotive aspects of human interest.” –Visualizing Deviance, (pp. 4-5)

“…news deals with three fundamental aspects of order. First there is moral evaluation; whether something is in or out of order is judged in terms of whether it is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, normal or abnormal, efficient or inefficient. As such, order is not a neutral concept. Second, order incorporates a conception of procedure. Order entails proceeding according to an established sequence of customary procedure…Third, order addresses hierarchy. Order means class, status, position, rank, and distinctions as to quality…News is fundamentally a discourse of morality, procedure, and hierarchy, providing symbolic representations of order in these terms.”–Representing Order,  (pg. 5).

Ericson notes that although journalists are subject to “substantial control,” they do struggle for autonomy from editors and powerful sources. “News-rooms are characterized by resistance and conflict over control of the news process, not by a conveyer-belt consensus within a smoothly running media machine.” Representing Order, (pp.16-17)

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