The Power Structure of Newsrooms

The power relations and power struggles that go on in news organizations between editors, groups of editors, departments, camera men, publishers and reporters all shape the news, although they are rarely revealed to the public because those in the critics' gallery usually choose not to criticize themselves or other critics.

An essential element of these power relations can be found in the fact that the majority of reporters are members of the proletariat in what looks a lot like a class struggle in the newsroom. They may attack politicians to please editors, prove themselves to other reporters, gain status in the organization, not be beaten by other reporters, seek promotions, better stories and, perhaps most important, better play on the page, which can, in turn, reinforce self-esteem, career advancement or visions of grandiosity. Walking around with their own desire to be admired, their own feelings of reduced size or their own desire to impact events, they may rebel against the intrusions into their autonomy carried out by editors who are at a remove from events, so that their copy is a compromise between what they want and what the organization demands.

Journalists may also attack politicians because they are displacing grievances with their own editors and organizations. News organizations are saturated with their own politics, unfair decisions and unreasoning bureaucracies. The journalist is frequently expected to be a silent and cooperative employee or he is branded a trouble-maker, which may encourage him to displace his anger and take revenge for feelings of impotence and real or imagined sleights, against those he covers. The ideal employee by the standards of many news organizations is one who is compliant and submissive inside the organization and a tiger outside – against the kind of targets chosen for him.

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Another frequent conflict goes on between reporters and copy editors, who typically receive the copy from editors, who deal directly with reporters and massage it for grammar, style and accuracy. These copy editors are even farther removed from events but in many news organizations they have the power to determine the final shape of a piece because they are at the farthest point downstream. Reporters waking up the next morning may be disturbed by what appears in the newspaper with their name on it, as different sets of editors and copy editors have shaped the product. They may or may not find out who made the changes or why they were made, which leaves the process faceless and incomprehensible to them and adds to the sense of powerlessness and isolation that can pervade the job. This may be a source of constant friction and of power struggles at many newspapers, particularly those with less than competent or less-than-sensitive copy editors and those without clear rules about the changes copy editors can make. A kind of class resentment builds up between reporters and editors that must constantly be damped down. Politicians often have a similar feeling of being left in the dark about what went on behind the scenes when they read stories about themselves in the newspaper.

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Editors often come to view reporters as extensions of themselves, appendages that can be sent into the world to gather information and then reeled in, to pen sadistic attacks, charming feature stories or important exposes. All the while, the editors sit in their control rooms, invisible to the public and at a remove even from the sideline of events. Under these conditions, editors are prone to their own forms of grandiosity and insensitivity and to a divorce from reality, unchecked by first-hand contact.

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When politicians confront reporters, at least those who haven't achieved celebrity status or a measure of autonomy in their organizations, they are also confronting editors, just as reporters are also confronting behind-the-scenes manipulators, strategists and money sources when they confront politicians.


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