The press and community decision making: a study of newspaper content during the Harris County Hospital District elections



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Though there is disagreement among political scientists as to the relative importance of daily metropolitan newspapers as a medium of political communication, most would agree that this section of the press has definite import for the political system. A citizen in a democratic community must rely, in part, upon the metropolitan press for information on which to form opinions concerning political issues within the community. A group of traditions concerning the role of the newspapers have evolved over time in this country, which serve as an ideal model guiding newspapermen as they perform their editorial and reportorial functions. These idealized norms, garnered from journalism textbooks and writings of the journalism fraternity, are detailed in the first chapter. Studies have shown, however, that newspapermen are also influenced by socially and organizationally determined norms of the larger community outside the journalism profession. A discrepancy thus seems to exist between idealized journalist norms and actual behavior. A typology of editors is described, in which, viewed as one extreme of a continuum, the "community-editor" is portrayed. The community-editor type works with other community leaders, employing the newspaper to promote a goal of these leaders. On the other hand, the opposite type, called the "journalist-editor", is guided hy idealized journalistic norms. He makes claims for the power of the press in political communication, viewing the institutional role of the newspaper as an objective reporter of news and as a watchdog of community interest. In this case study, the content, during the Harris County Hospital District elections, of three metropolitan daily newspapers is examined to determine if these newspapers reflect more nearly the community-editor type than the journalist-editor type of newspaperman behavior. Measurements of emphasis, using techniques of content analysis, are employed to determine the objectivity of the newspapers as political communicators and the extent to which they acted as promoters during the elections. It is concluded that, although making a show of objectivity, two newspapers manipulated emphasis given to certain issues to achieve policy ends, and might be more nearly classed as community editor oriented. The other paper is found to approximate more nearly the journalist-editor type of behavior. The reason advanced for this difference in newspaper behavior was a difference in newspaper ownership. The two newspapers approximating community-editor orientation were locally owned, whereas the journalist-editor type was owned and managed by a national chain.