Our Government Our Election

Lesson 2.4: Traditional Media

Students will learn about traditional media’s role in scrutinising government, and consider why citizens should scrutinise the media itself.

Teacher's Background Information: A Brief History of Journalism
We may expect journalism to be a neutral, objective, and non-partisan account of events. However, this is not consistent with journalism’s history. Media historian Robert McChesney explored this issue in The Political Economy of Media.

According to McChesney, journalism has a history of partisanship. In fact, that was its original purpose. Prior to 1900, countless newspapers permeated society with different ideological ideas. Freedom of the press was meant to preserve every newspaper’s right to disseminate its political opinion. Government even subsidised printing and mailing costs for all newspapers to ensure diversity of opinion. McChesney noted that a “partisan press system has much to offer a democratic society as long as there are numerous well-subsidized media providing a broad range of opinions” (p. 27). By the end of the nineteenth century, every major North American city had several newspapers, each espousing their owner’s political viewpoints.

However, the press transformed by the end of the 19th century. The primary purpose of newspaper publishers shifted from disseminating ideas to becoming a profit-based business. To achieve this new purpose, owners consolidated papers to increase the efficiency and reach of advertising. Papers shut down, and the remaining ones generally espoused the viewpoints of business interests. Ideologies that did not put a primary focus on profit began to vanish from newspapers.

Critique emerged about how this new business model silenced broader political debate. A groundbreaking study was Upton Sinclair’s 1919 book The Brass Check. It exposed how the journalism of the few newspapers that were left simply promoted the values and desires of newspaper owners, the owners’ bankers, and the paper’s advertisers. Gone was the ideological diversity of the 1800s.

Owners recognised the need for their newspapers to appear neutral. If newspapers could be seen as trustworthy sources of information, readers would not have to worry that media consolidation was leading to a monopoly on news provision in their community. Thus, a push began to create schools of journalism. The theory was that trained editors and journalists who were granted autonomy from the newspaper owners could hold professional standards that would separate the owner’s political beliefs from the news. McChesney observed that "over time it has become clear that there was one problem with the theory of professional journalism, an insurmountable one at that. The claim that it was possible to provide neutral and objective news was suspect, if not entirely bogus. Decision making is an inescapable part of the journalism process, and some values have to be promoted when deciding why one story rates front-page treatment while another is ignored. This does not mean that some journalism cannot be more nonpartisan or more accurate than others; it certainly does not mean that nonpartisan and accurate journalism should not have a prominent role to play in a democratic society. It only means that journalism cannot actually be neutral or objective, and unless one acknowledges that, it is impossible to detect the values at play that determine what becomes news, and what does not" (p. 30).

Media ownership, according to McChesney, has structural power that latently if not overtly shapes the news content we see.

1. Play the Whisper Game to consider the shortcomings of second-hand information. Have a student write down a statement, then whisper it to their neighbour. The next student will whisper it to their neighbour, and so on. Compare what the final student heard to what was originally said. Use this to illustrate that news coverage is second-hand information.

2. Read Traditional Media and Political Coverage.

  • What kinds of Saskatchewan-specific news sources are available to your community?
  • What are the qualities and weaknesses of traditional media?

3. Read Opinions and Editorials.

  • Editorial stances and the opinions of media owners—in theory—are not supposed to impact the work of journalists. Do you think this is the case in practice?
  • Should media outlets that offer opinions be obliged to provide a balanced diversity of opinions?

4. Summarise topics of this lesson with a wider class discussion of the question:
Do you trust the news in traditional media?

5. For an in-depth case study of the media’s role in shaping common sense see “Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Damage and the Reporting” in 70 Years of the Bomb.

Traditional Media and Political Coverage


Editorials and Opinions


What is Revolution?