The Objectives of Journalism

Acting in the Public Interest

“The public interest” is a very broad term, but in the context of journalism, it has been explicitly defined. The Press Complaints Commission, which regulates British print media, defines the public interest as:

(i) Detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour.
(ii) Protecting public health and safety.
(iii) Preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation.

Since the public is the ultimate source of income for media, acting in their interest is both an ethical and pragmatic concern for journalists.

Maintaining the Public’s Trust

Journalists strive to keep the public’s trust, because it is on the foundation of trust that information is collected and exchanged. The public must trust journalists to provide accurate and valuable information, or the journalists’ works will be neither sought out nor believed. Sources of information must trust journalists to protect their identity, where applicable, and not to misrepresent them or their views. This can be seen as an ethical value, but it is also a pragmatic one: a media outlet cannot do business if it cannot obtain sources or be believed by the public.


Finally, there is the pragmatic concern of financial solvency. No media outlet wants to have to choose between accurately presenting an important story and turning a profit, but these objectives sometimes conflict. Staying in business is, of course, the primary concern in such situations. When faced with a decision about what stories should be published, or how to portray a particular issue, the press is often more likely to publish a story that portrays events and issues unambiguously and straightforwardly (Galtung and Ruge, 1965). Often this results in an oversimplification of complex issues, or even a substitution of sensationalized stories for important ones. Harcup and O’Neill (2001) identified ten elements that journalists look for when assessing the viability of a story:

  • The power elite: stories concerning powerful individuals, organizations or institutions;
  • Celebrity: stories concerning people who are already famous;
  • Entertainment: stories concerning sex, showbusiness, human interest, animals, an unfolding drama, or offering opportunities for humorous treatment, entertaining photographs or witty headlines;
  • Surprise: stories with an element of the unexpected and/or contrast;
  • Bad news: stories with negative overtones such as conflict or tragedy;
  • Good news: stories with positive overtones such as rescues and cures;
  • Magnitude: stories perceived as sufficiently significant either in the numbers of people involved or in potential impact;
  • Relevance: stories about issues, groups and nations perceived to be relevant to the audience;
  • Follow-ups: stories about subjects already in the news;
  • Media agenda: stories that set or fit the news organisation’s own agenda.

To be sure, many of these do not directly conflict with choosing stories that are in the public’s interest. The magnitude and relevance criteria may be helpful in choosing important news stories. However, this list does highlight that the perceived “importance” of a story is by no means the only factor in deciding what will be published.

Next: Journalistic Ethics

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