Notes on WARREN BREED’s Paper


Warren Breed’s "Social Control in the Newsroom” (1955) is a classic and pioneering example of the scientific study of the news making process. Part of this study is reprinted in Moral Compass, pp. 112-120. The paper has also been widely reprinted.

Breed, a former journalist turned sociologist, addresses the question of how publishers, the chief executive officer of a newspaper, gets the journalists to follow "policy," even though that policy is very seldom written down. Breed knows, based on his own experience as a journalist and from observation, that the news making process does not take place in a vacuum. Journalists are not sent out into the world to do some detached observing and then come back to report the news. The problem Breed addresses is: How do publishers enforce policy? (Sinclair might have put the problem this way: How do publishers get fearless investigators of truth to become lackeys of the capitalist system?)

Ideally, there should be no need for a "policy" other than the famous "all the news that's fit to print." Journalists are professionals who cover the news as it happens. What becomes news is a function of what happens, not of policy. But there is a difference between the news that happens and the accounts of that news that gets published or broadcast. News policies do exist and influence the relationship between the news that happens and the accounts thereof. Most of the time journalists do comply with those policies.

But these policies exist in a context of (a) journalism ethics or ideas about the journalistic "good" (for example, the ideas and values found in the SPJ code of ethics), (b) the fact that journalists tend to be more liberal in their ideas than the owners/publishers, and (c) the fact that it is generally unacceptable if not unethical for publishers to dictate what their journalists shall write, because that is constrained by considerations of truth. So how is policy maintained, and how is it bypassed?

Breed begins by showing how the policy is learned through the "socialization" of the newsroom. New journalists are never told what the policy is, or what slant to put on a story. Journalists learn policy as they learn the job and discover how the newsroom works and what its values are. Specifically, they learn policy

How journalists comply with policy

Having explained how journalists come to learn the policy, the next question Breed explores is how they come to comply with those policies. He found the following reasons:

Breed found in his research that five of these six factors were present in all the newsrooms he studied; esteem for superiors tended to vary. He found that in newsrooms where morale was high, there were few problems over policy; when morale was low, journalists just wanted to get out and bucked policy.

Ethical question

While Breed does not discuss ethics as such, it should be evident that institutional policy, along with media law, serves as a constraint on journalistic action, and hence on media ethics. Violating institutional norms for ethical reasons becomes just as difficult to justify as violating the law for ethical reasons. In general, ethical consciousness routinely collapses into policy compliance. Hence, the routines of the news-making process are such that a "good employee" model of professional ethics emerges. [Demers] Do not rock the boat, comply with policies and do not break the law. But, the "good employee" model is hardly a professional ideal of ethics.

How policy can be broken or changed

Since news policies , as Breed learned, are seldom clearly defined and almost never written, the potential for "deviation" exists in all areas where the policy is not clear, or where individual journalists have sufficient professional standing and expertise in an area. Journalists can bypass policy -- which in Breed seems to be almost synonymous with "real" journalism -- when

One of Breed's conclusion is especially relevant to the video on the Myth of the Liberal Media (Chomsky and Herman):

"For the society as a whole, the existing system of power relationships is maintained. Policy usually protects property and class interests, and thus the strata and groups holding these interests are better able to retain them. For the larger community, much news is printed objectively, allowing for opinion to form openly, but policy news may be slanted or buried so that some important information is denied the citizenry." (p. 119)

Breed also argues that changes can best be made through pressure on publishers from readers and professional codes of ethics for journalists.

"Any important change toward a more free and responsible press must stem from various possible pressures on the publisher, who epitomises the policy making and coordinating role," he writes. (p. 120).

(Fuente original: