Feb 1 2006

Consider the Source

The Nightline study and media research

I first became acquainted with FAIR in 1987, when a friend handed me a special issue of Extra! (10-11/87) that described the distortions in U.S. news coverage of Nicaragua, highlighting the success of the Reagan administration at manipulating the news media. At the time, I was a grad student in sociology at Boston College, and was working on a study of media strategies of the Central America solidarity movement and exploring broader questions about how news media reported U.S. foreign policy.

With Cold War assumptions shaping both the political debate on Capitol Hill and mainstream news coverage of U.S. involvement in Central America, FAIR’s highlighting of these taken-for-granted assumptions and suggestions for alternative ways of framing the situation were a breath of fresh air. Just as important, FAIR suggested that activists needed to talk back to the news media and develop strategies to reframe news coverage of U.S. foreign policy.

Shortly after reading the special issue, I traveled to New York City to meet with FAIR founder Jeff Cohen to discuss the possibility of a collaborative research project. FAIR had recently received a small grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to support research for an article on Nightline, ABC’s prestigious late-night news program. The program was at the height of its popularity and influence in the late-1980s, with host Ted Koppel among the most respected journalists in the United States.

FAIR had a core idea that I saw as part of a broader tradition of research on news sources: Rather than trying to evaluate the content of Nightline’s political discussions—an approach that is fraught with subjectivity—they wanted to analyze Nightline’s guestlist, the roster of experts and officials who appear each night to discuss the “top story” of the day.

FAIR and I believed, and still do, that the best way to understand the politics of news media is to examine the voices that appear in the news. Journalists are trained to keep their own explicit interpretations out of stories unless they clearly identify themselves as opinion commentators or analysts, instead choosing sources to provide these interpretations. Analyzing these source choices reveals a great deal about how news organizations implicitly frame news stories. Ultimately, examining news sources—or, in the case of television interview programs, guests—gives us a clear picture of the range of opinion that news media consider legitimate and worthy of public attention.

A collaborative method

What FAIR lacked was the background and skills to conceptualize and conduct a systematic study of Nightline’s guestlist. In the spring of 1988, I began working with David Croteau, another Boston College sociology grad student, to work out a method that would lay the foundation for our decade-long work with FAIR. Since the FAIR staff had a great deal of knowledge about both the news media and Nightline itself, we agreed to work together to identify the underlying questions and goals of the study.

FAIR wanted research that would provide data, preferably quantitative, on the political orientation of Nightline’s guestlist, classifying guests along a left-center-right or liberal-moderate-conservative continuum. While we might be able to use voting records to place elected officials on a liberal-conservative scale, though, we felt that judgments of the political orientation of the majority of Nightline’s guests would be too subjective, reflecting our own political leanings as much as those of the guests.

Instead of examining the ideology of guests, we focused on their demographic characteristics—race, gender, nationality, occupation—and the conditions of their appearance on the program—when they appeared on the program, whether they appeared alone, how much they spoke and the topic of each program. This provided us with an overall picture of the types of people that Nightline featured, and it gave us a clear view of the types that are systematically underrepresented.

You’re not on the guestlist

Since we planned a large-scale study spanning several years of Nightline programming, we catalogued guests who appeared repeatedly. We also wanted to examine in-depth the political character of Nightline’s policy debates, so we conducted qualitative case studies of several prominent issues of the late 1980s, exploring the way the program treated such politically charged issues as terrorism, Central America and Southern Africa.

We spent the summer and fall of 1988 reading, coding and analyzing transcripts from 865 Nightline programs that covered a 40-month period from 1985 to 1988, and in February 1989 FAIR published “Are You on the Nightline Guestlist?” as a special issue of Extra! (1-2/89). The Nightline guests with the most appearances during our study period were Reagan-era Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Nixon-era Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Reagan Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell. As we concluded in the study, “The four most frequent guests are either staunch cold warriors or right-wing ideologues, or both.”

The vast majority of guests—80 percent—represented powerful institutions such as government or major media, while representatives of community or civic organizations, minority communities and social movements, at 6 percent, were almost invisible. Eighty-nine percent of the American guests were male and 92 percent were white.

News interview programs like Nightline do more than simply report the news; they provide an electronic soapbox from which guests interpret events for the public. But Nightline’s guestlist included a very limited range of voices, and, as a result, presented viewers with a narrow perspective on the issues and events of the day.

The study’s impact

Thanks in large part to skilled publicity work by FAIR’s staff, the study received widespread media attention, with stories appearing in scores of daily newspapers and talk radio stations (e.g., L.A. Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, all 2/6/89). And FAIR was able to use our research to build an activist campaign to pressure Nightline to include a wider range of perspectives on its program.

The Nightline study, which served as the foundation to a long-term researcher/ activist collaboration, was read and cited far more widely in activist circles than in the academic world. Indeed, our subsequent book, By Invitation Only: How the Media Limit Political Debate, which grew out of our studies for FAIR, was published by a progressive publisher (Common Courage Press) and circulated primarily among activists.

Later, when our second study focused attention on the narrow range of debate on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (Winter/90), FAIR activists took a small measure of credit for the NewsHour’s subsequent inclusion of Erwin Knoll, editor of the monthly magazine The Progressive, as a regular on its journalist roundtable. Many local media activists told us that our critical media research—available in Extra! rather than a scholarly journal, and written in a language accessible to non-specialists—helped them to develop and disseminate their own critique of news media.

In subsequent years, Croteau and I would conduct several more studies that FAIR published and released, including research on syndicated newspaper columnists (Extra!, 6/92), public affairs programming on PBS (Extra!, 9-10/93), the classroom news program Channel One (Extra!, 5-6/97) and the political attitudes of Washington journalists (Extra!, 7-8/98).

Monitoring for change

During the 1990s, the systematic media monitoring that FAIR pioneered emerged as a common approach for media activists who wanted to mobilize new recruits and build a foundation for direct discussion with journalists about their performance. Unlike media criticism of a single article or news report, systematic monitoring gave activists a tool for analyzing broader patterns of media discourse. Individual stories could be criticized for what they said or omitted, but activists could provide a much more compelling critique to both the public and journalists by linking the problems of a single report to persistent patterns of inclusion and exclusion. News that relied primarily and credulously on official statements could be shown to be not just poor reporting, but a sign of the broader problems with how news is gathered and produced.

This powerful and clear critique helped overcome some of the challenges media activists faced. The empirical results of media monitoring can motivate activists to talk back to the media, and facilitate a discussion by focusing blame away from individual stories or reporters and toward broader structural problems. The findings of media research can be the basis for a publicity campaign that mainstream news outlets, often reluctant to report on the ideas and arguments of media critics, may find newsworthy.

Monitoring helped media activism broaden its impact in the larger activist community as well. Because it is often issue-specific, monitoring provided a substantive basis for coalition building between media activists and organizations focused on other policy questions.

Activists as researchers

As media monitoring became a regular part of the repertoire of media activism, several other academics conducted research for FAIR and other media activist organizations. It was clear, however, that maintaining a long-term media-monitoring project requires that the key researchers be activists themselves.

In order to support such local media activism, I began working with FAIR to develop materials to help train activists to do their own media monitoring in hopes that activists would define monitoring projects that were consistent with their own specific needs and goals. In the early 1990s, FAIR trained local activists in media monitoring in cities from Philadelphia to Phoenix, Chapel Hill to San Francisco.

While many activists were initially intimidated by the idea of doing research on the news media, they commonly found that carefully analyzing media was an empowering experience that gave them a stronger foundation from which to criticize their local media. Rocky Mountain Media Watch, an organization that would go on to produce Making the News, an activist-friendly guide to media, became a prime example of how local activists could build a movement with media monitoring as a central component.

In its early years, FAIR had a compelling critique of the news media, a plethora of examples to cite and articulate spokespeople to make their case. What they needed was the same thing that elites have—the support of legitimate experts who can provide “technical assistance” in the form of media research. Without high-profile, well-funded think tanks to rely upon, public interest organizations like FAIR cannot count on the ongoing support of researchers to help them develop and disseminate their critique. Our work with FAIR was neither large nor regular—just six projects in 10 years—but it provided modest research support that helped build an academic foundation for FAIR’s powerful critique of the U.S. news media.

Now, many years after the Nightline study, FAIR continues to generate valuable research about the range of perspectives in our major news media. FAIR’s 2003 study of television news coverage in the weeks leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which found that less than 1 percent of on-camera news sources represented organizations opposed to the war (Extra!, 5-6/03), showed once again how this kind of media research can illuminate what’s wrong with the news media, and help mobilize citizens to reform our media system and create alternative media to make their voices heard.