Journalism Continuum

Introduction

The world of news media is complicated, and there's a bit of a learning curve to understanding all the different kinds of things the news media produces. This reading will give you an introduction to the different types of publications you might encounter as you engage with the public discourse and the news media.

A few notes as we begin. First, this discussion is specific to American news media. Things may work differently in other countries. Second, let's define some key terms:

Okay, now that we've got those definitions out of the way, we're ready to talk about the full spectrum of journalism's offerings, from basic, minimally biased reporting to complex, openly biased writing.

The Continuum

Alarms might be going off in your head already. "Wait," you're thinking, "I thought the news media was supposed to be completely unbiased. I'm always hearing complaints from people that the news is too biased, that it's all a sham."

Well, that's partly true. A large part of what journalists produce is meant to have a minimum of bias. But there's more to the news media than just reporting facts and conveying information. A lot more. Readers who don't understand the full picture of what journalists and the news media produce every day can easily find themselves disappointed or frustrated with the amount of bias they encounter, leading them to form incorrect opinions about the quality of American journalism. But in this case the fault lies with the reader—the news media has always deliberately produced both unbiased and appropriately biased material. (It also produces inappropriately biased material, which is a cause for concern that we will discuss later.)

It helps to think of journalism's offerings as existing on a continuum. Imagine a vertical line representing the full breadth of news media offerings. The top of the line represents those articles whose sole purpose is to inform, to convey the facts as they are, with little or no interpretation or coloring. This is the realm of pure reporting, where bias must be carefully managed and minimized. The bottom of the line represents those articles whose purpose is to persuade, to convince the reader to adopt a position or course of action concerning an issue. This is the realm of opinion, where bias is allowed because having a bias—that is, taking a side on an issue—is integral to making an argument.

The news media produce articles all across this continuum, allowing for varying levels of bias or persuasion to come into the writing as appropriate. Each type of writing serves a specific purpose and achieves that purpose in a different way. The image below shows some of the major types of articles and places them along the continuum in order from most informative (and therefore least biased) to most persuasive (and therefore most biased). NOTE: There are no absolute categories or names used across all outlets, but the following general categories will give you some idea of the common types of articles you will see.

the journalism continuum

Let's remember two key points here:

  1. There is no such thing as no bias. Anytime you choose to write about something you've exhibited a bias against everything you've chosen not to write about—the very act of selecting a story as "newsworthy" carries an inherent bias. Also, anytime you use language to describe reality, your choices about what words to employ and how to arrange them constitute more bias. Even in that last sentence, my choice of the word "language" instead of "writing," "English," or another word, and my choice of the word "reality" over "life," "the universe," or "whatever" represent a bias. It may be a tiny bias, but it is there. Journalists don't seek to get rid of all bias in their writing because they know it can't be done. Instead, they seek to carefully manage their biases, keeping them within acceptable limits.
  2. The level of "acceptable bias" is a subjective concept depending on who is writing, who is reading, and what is being written about, but we can say that it generally increases as we move down the continuum. We'll revisit this idea below.

Types of Journalism

Now let's discuss each of these categories in more detail. For each one, we'll describe what it looks like and give examples, discuss how much bias is acceptable for that type of writing, and indicate where such writing can typically be found.

Basic Reporting/Breaking News

Breaking news is the first thing we hear about a new occurrence, often just minutes after something happens. A good example of breaking news is when a natural disaster strikes and reporters rush to the scene of the fire, earthquake, or hurricane to gather information and pass it along to the reader. Similarly, when a notable crime is committed, reporters rush to the scene, where the police might have a press conference to let them know what's happening with the arrest or investigation, and they talk to people in the area who may have witnessed the event or know the victims.

Many reporters work a beat; that is, they are assigned to report exclusively on a particular topic or location. For example, major news outlets keep a Washington bureau staffed with reporters whose only job is to attend daily White House press briefings or other events associated with the government. Other journalists specialize in business, technology, social events, etc., and report on the goings-on in their area each day. Much of their work falls under what we would call "basic reporting" because that's what it is: a report of what went on the world on a given day.

How much bias is acceptable: Very little. With breaking stories, journalists rein in their bias as much as possible, sticking to just reporting the facts as they become available. They don't comment on or interpret the facts, and they endeavor not to spin the reader's perception of events through their choice of words or tone. For this reason, breaking news stories from multiple outlets will read very similarly, even redundantly, as they report the same basic facts in the same general way. Remember, though, that there is no so thing as no bias. Whenever a reporter or editor chooses to run one story (say, about a local murder) he or she is choosing not to run uncounted other stories (all the other, lesser crimes that occurred that day). And choosing words to describe the facts of an event (for example, using the more emotional "murder" over the more clinical "homocide") brings in bias, however small.

screenshots of same breaking news story in three different newspapers

Coverage of a breaking news story at the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Note the similarities in their headlines and types of photos chosen; the articles also include almost identical details.

Where these are found: Breaking news stories and basic reporting are most often found in newspapers or in daily news broadcasts on television or radio because these have a daily news cycle (as opposed to magazines, which work on a weekly or monthly basis).

In-depth Reporting/Follow-up Coverage

In the days and weeks following the breaking of a major new story, journalists continue to follow it, reporting on a wider array of related topics. This could include developments in the story, research into the people and motives behind the story, speculation about the future of the issue, etc. For example, in the wake of a natural disaster like a hurricane, reporters might follow several threads as coverage continues and the facts become clearer: who was killed or injured, how much damage was caused, what relief and clean-up efforts are underway, stories of survivors and the hardships they face, etc. Sometimes the follow-up coverage becomes its own story or spawns its own round of follow-up coverage.

How much bias is acceptable: Not much. As with breaking news, reporters are still obligated to stick to the facts of the story. But deciding which aspects of the story to follow up on can be tricky. For example, an editor must decide whether assigning reporters to look into the government's sluggish response to a natural disaster is newsworthy. Readers who are fans of the party in power may see that decision as biased, as an unfair shot against the current administration. But if the editor decides against the story, readers from the other side might see him or her as just as biased. Worse, another news outlet might get the scoop; that is, they could get to the story first and be rewarded with an increased reputation for being "hard-hitting" journalists. And what about the human interest stories focusing on victims of the disaster? Who decides which poor soul who lost everything should get an article written about him or her, and what about all the other victims who remain nameless? As you can see, bias creeps in no matter what.

At this level, the language a reporter uses also has a wider range of acceptability. The story that breaks news of a stock market scare will likely stick to the facts, reporting how far stocks fell and what prominent economists said about it. Days later, when it becomes clear the scare was a full-blown crash, and reporters have interviewed those who lost their investments or retirement savings, it is probably okay for a journalist to label the event a "tragedy," even though doing so introduces a degree of interpretation of the facts. We'd call that level of bias acceptable because almost anyone, regardless of whether they are liberal or conservative, would agree that the event is indeed a tragedy.

Where these are found: As with breaking news, follow-up coverage is most often found in newspapers and in daily news broadcasts on television or radio.

Features/Investigative Journalism

Features are long, cover story-type articles that treat a topic in great depth. These types of stories are meticulously researched over a longer timeframe than other stories, and they may use narrative elements such as characterization, setting, plot, and conflict to tell the story. A classic type of feature is the in-depth profile, often of a celebrity or prominent politician or public figure, wherein a writer spends a lot of time with the subject over a period of days or weeks and then gives the reader an insider's view of that person's life and personality. Another is the true crime story, where the writer reenacts through words and images a grisly crime, the police work that solved it (or failed to), and the impact it had on a community.

Investigative journalism is when a journalist acts like a detective, uncovering a hidden scandal or untold story. They do this by using a variety of means including talking to whistleblowers and sources that will only share what they know if promised anonymity; examining court documents and government or corporate files, often obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests or other means; doing extensive legwork to visit locations and understand complex histories and motivations behind events; and more. Investigative journalism can act very similarly to breaking news in that it breaks a new story, but instead of responding to news as it happens—like a journalist rushing to the scene of a natural disaster to report on what is happening—it creates news by revealing what was hidden, like an embezzlement scandal. Thus, while breaking news is reported or repeated by all major news outlets, investigative journalism is almost always a scoop—the writer's publisher is the only outlet that has the story.

image of new york times feature article

A feature article from the New York Times Magazine that includes elements of investigative journalism.

How much bias is acceptable: Quite a bit more. Because editors and reporters have to make decisions about what stories to pursue, and because the pursuit may involve quite a lot more resources than other types of reporting (travel expenses, setting up interviews, weeks of research, etc.), the stakes are higher and the amount of bias that necessarily is part of the decision-making process increases. If an editor agrees to finance a reporter's research into a company's history of turning a blind eye to sexual harassment or a senator's ties with hate groups, doing so is an act of advocacy and necessarily represents some degree of bias towards what that editor values (in these examples, sexual and racial equality). If readers aren't prepared to accept that amount of bias, this kind of journalism could never happen. At the same time, however, there's always a risk that the journalist will give in to confirmation bias— if he or she goes looking for something hard enough, believing it exists, he or she is likely to find it and to ignore evidence to the contrary, especially when not finding it means to publication and no paycheck.

Similarly, more bias is allowed in the language. Whereas basic and in-depth reporting is usually written using the inverted pyramid model (the article is arranged to put the most important facts first and less important facts later), features are allowed to take a more creative approach. For example, a recent LA Times feature on a conman called "Dirty John" doesn't begin by telling the reader the outcome; instead it sets the stage, builds the characterizations through scenes almost like a movie or novel does, and follows a path of foreshadowing and rising action leading to a blockbuster climax. In so doing, it both draws the reader in and tells a human story that couldn't really be understood through the terseness of a standard newspaper article. It also admits a lot more bias than a typical report does, both in its language and in how the reporter interprets events and their meaning for the reader, but most readers will find that amount of bias perfectly acceptable.

image of latimes feature article

This true crime feature from the LA Times is a 6-part series that can be read or listened to as a podcast.

Where these are found: Newspapers and daily television and radio news programs all publish this kind of writing, though less often than they do the above kinds. Often such stories appear in the weekend editions when there is less breaking news due to the fact that many businesses, government agencies, and the stock markets are closed. Features also feature prominently in news magazines and websites because they have a longer news cycle, typically coming out weekly or monthly. This gives the writers longer to work on more in-depth stories, and readers expect magazine articles to be longer and more thoroughly researched and reported. Many podcasts focus on these types of stories as well.

News Analysis/Commentary

Journalists and other experts don't just report the news; they also interpret it, discussing what the news means in a broader context. News analysis may read very similarly to in-depth reporting in that it provides a larger context for an ongoing story, but it does more than merely digging deeper into current events; the writer uses his or her expertise to forward an opinion about what it all means or why it is significant. Usually the writer of this type of piece is either a senior journalist with years of experience reporting on the topic at hand or an expert in that field. For example, McKay Coppins, formerly of Buzzfeed and now at the Atlantic, made his name reporting on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential bid. As a Mormon journalist who grew up in Massachusetts and went to school in Utah, he was uniquely qualified to both report and comment on a fellow Massachusetts Mormon's political campaign, and he continues to offer analysis of news concerning the Republican party.

But why would a reader want a journalist to convey not only the facts but also their opinion of what those facts mean or how they should be interpreted? Think of it like a movie review. The reviewer's purpose is not merely to report that a certain movie was released but also to discuss the movie's merits and ultimately help the reader decide whether or not to see the movie. Since average readers aren't experts in film and don't spend all their time keeping aware of trends in the field and sharpening their critical abilities, they welcome the voice of a trusted expert to expand their thinking. They know the writer is biased, that he or she has preferences and pet peeves. They also know that because they are reading not only facts but opinions, they must read critically, not allowing the writer to make up their minds for them but instead engaging with the writer in a dialogue of ideas as a necessary step to making up their own minds. As with movie reviews, so with political coverage and other topics—many readers welcome analysis and commentary as an important part of their journalistic diet.

How much bias is acceptable: Analysis and commentary forward an opinion and are therefore argumentative. In other words, they are inherently biased, because forwarding an argument, however reserved, means you have taken a side, and taking a side is one way we could define having a bias. However, the argumentative aspects of this kind of writing are carefully limited—the writer is commenting on and interpreting the news, not making a strong call for action. Though a side has been taken, that side must be in careful balance with the facts being reported. If a writer gives an interpretation that goes too far beyond what the facts will support, the reader will reject the analysis. Think of it this way: in a traditional argument, a claim is made (what the reader should believe or do) and evidence is brought in to support that claim (why the reader should believe or do it). In analysis and commentary, the focus is reversed. The writer foregrounds the facts of the story (the evidence) and then adds his or her interpretation of the meaning or importance of those facts (the claim).

Where these are found: Newspapers regularly publish news analysis (and they usually clearly label it as such to prevent the reader confusing it with more straightforward reporting), and television and radio news programs often invite expert guests or panelists to discuss the news in this way. This is also a mainstay of news magazines and websites, again because their longer publishing cycle allows for this type of writing and their readers expect it.

how newspapers label news analysis

How the Washington Post and the New York Times label news analysis articles. Note that, above the headline, they include the words "Analysis" and "News Analysis" respectively.

Opinions/Editorials

There's also a place in journalistic writing for full-on arguments. For example, the last few pages of the main section of most newspapers are typically called the opinion pages, and these are reserved for several different kinds of arguments. At the New York Times, for instance, they publish at least four types of opinion pieces regularly:

Other newspapers use different names for the same types of things, and news magazines and websites often have similar content. Additionally, some feature writing, especially at magazines, takes the form of an extended researched argument. A classic example is Nicholas Carr's 2008 Atlantic article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" wherein he synthesizes research about the brain and the internet to argue that we should be concerned at the internet's ability to change the way our cognition works.

article called is google making us stupid

Nicholas Carr later expanded his article into the bestselling book The Shallows.

How much bias is acceptable: As with the previous category, arguments are, in a manner of speaking, inherently biased, so the question of how much bias is acceptable is a non sequitur. Evaluating an argument on how little bias it contains is like evaluating pizza on how little pizza it contains. Instead, when we evaluate arguments, we examine the quality of its reasoning. We ask how well the evidence proves the claims, we look for logical fallacies, and we examine the assumptions it makes.

Where these are found: Newspapers publish opinion pieces daily, and many magazines have staff writers who pen regular pieces as well.

Punditry

The word "pundit" generally refers to anyone who is an expert, so it could be applied to anyone who writes news analysis, commentary, or opinion pieces. But here I'm using it to refer specifically to a relatively new breed of commentator that has become popular in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. While most print commentary writers specialize in a relatively narrow topic—like the White House, or relations with China, or immigration law—the newer generation of radio- and television-based pundits are, generally speaking, experts in having opinions. I'm referring to people like Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, Rush Limbaugh, and Chris Matthews—notable personalities whose names are often prominently featured in the titles of their shows and who often dominate the primetime hours.

Technically speaking, punditry isn't any more argumentative than opinions and editorials, but there is a key difference in the approach many of them take. While newspapers never fail to identify opinion pieces either by labelling them directly or by placing them on pages designated strictly for opinions, television and radio pundits tend to be much more subtle in their presentation. They dress like news anchors. Their sets and graphics look remarkably similar to those used in traditional news shows. They often occupy the time slots that used to be reserved for straight news shows. In other words, pundits aren't always straightforward about their purpose, and it's easy for an uninformed and uncareful viewer to confuse their opinions for facts, their commentating for reporting.

television pundits Laura Ingraham, Fareed Zakaria, Sean Hannity, and Rachel Maddow

Television pundits Laura Ingraham of Fox News, Fareed Zakaria of CNN, Sean Hannity of Fox News, and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC.

How much bias is acceptable: Again, pundits make arguments, which are inherently biased. Their statements are better evaluated for the quality of reasoning they display.

Where these are found: Pundits are most often found on news network shows bearing their names, often airing during late primetime hours, and on talk radio stations, often on AM. Some pundits, like Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire, primarily exist on the internet and publish in blog, podcast, and streaming video forms.

Back to the Continuum

Now that we've discussed the major types of news media offerings, let's reconsider the journalism continuum and the implications of our discussion. In the picture below, we've grouped the six major kinds of journalism we discussed into three categories called fact-based journalism, interpretive journalism, and opinion-based journalism.

the journalism continuum

Conclusions and Complications

Okay, let's review the main ideas we've covered and add to them a bit:

Lastly, let's complicate things:

There's one more complication we need to acknowledge before we're done: me. As the writer of this essay, I have had as my goal to inform, not to persuade, so that you, my reader, will better understand the complexities of the public discourse as it relates to journalism and news media. In trying to reach that goal of being informative, I have tried to carefully manage and minimize my bias, and I've endeavored to get my facts straight, thus holding up my part of the social contract mentioned above. However, as my reader, you have a part to play in that social contract. It's your responsibility to carefully evaluate what you read, not taking for granted that it is free from bias and without factual error. Perhaps you noticed that (try as I might) I can't seem to find anything good to say about pundits, and (though I try to play it cool) I seem to be in love with the New York Times: that's my bias showing through despite my best efforts. A naive reader might not see my biases and may finish this essay swayed by my opinions, ready to take up arms against pundits and subscribe to the Times. But not you. As a critical thinker, you stay aware of what you are reading, and you are actively engaged in evaluating its merits and questioning its claims. Good for you.

Now get out there and participate in the public discourse!