Part B: Agenda Setting

What are editorial policies and editorial firewalls? Learn who determines which stories are covered in the media, and in what format.
How Does a Story
Get to Us?

Starting the day with a cup of coffee and browsing the news online is a routine for many of us. Have you ever considered who determines what news you see in the morning and what that process looks like?
There are innumerable things happening in the world around us, which means there are always more potential news stories than media outlets have the resources to cover. Information needs to be filtered to separate what is relevant to the reader or viewer. There are many complex factors that contribute to the type of news stories we see and which of these make an impression on us.

Editorial decisions:

A number of factors go into an editor's decision about which stories to cover. What do their readers or viewers want? What do outlets think they have a responsibility to cover? What have they covered in the past? What are other outlets covering?

Where we receive our news:
Websites and social media tools use algorithms based on visitors' previous browsing history, shares, and likes, to show us things it thinks we like. This can reinforce certain trends and create "filter bubbles" – the common cycle where we're only shown content that matches our existing points of view.

What types of content we consume:
There are many choices on many platforms – you may prefer news, politics, science, entertainment or something else. Many factors influence our choices.

What sticks in our brain:
Why do we remember? How might that influence our news consumption habits?
We are now going to find out how editorial decisions are made.
Popular culture can sometimes inaccurately portray how newsrooms function, what journalists do every day, and who journalists are.
How newsrooms structured?
Newsrooms and other media outlets generally have different departments, and some of those departments have "firewalls" between them. A firewall is an invisible barrier that keeps two sides separate from each other.For example, the influence of a news outlet's owners should be kept separate from its editorial board so that the editorial board can express its opinions freely.
Departments at a media outlet often include:
- reporters who cover different "beats" (or topics), such as crime, sports, national politics, and weather;
- editorial writers who help to direct the tone and content of the outlet's publications;
- social media;
- advertising;
- ownership.
Ultimately, editors should be responsible for selecting the stories that their outlet covers.
How does an editor decide which stories to publish?
There are several factors that feed into editorial decision making. Let's take a look!
Reader preference and expectation
Media outlets want to ensure that people consume and engage with their content. When that content is online, media outlets want people to click on and share their stories. Each publication has a certain audience in mind, and that audience expects certain content from the publication. This is why many outlets try to fill their own niche. For example, Vogue magazine might dedicate an entire issue to Paris Fashion Week, while the Wall Street Journal might not even report it.
Civic duty
Journalists who cover important local, national, and global events often feel that they have a civic duty to inform their readers. This is one reason, why major outlets write about natural disasters, wars, famine, and other important events or issues.
Local papers tend to emphasize what's happening in their city or region. They might have a small section devoted to national or global events, or they might assume readers will get that news from other sources so not cover them at all. For example, U.S. outlets like USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times cover events around the world but devote most of their coverage to what's happening in the United States.
Unusual events get more coverage than ordinary events. The old saying goes that "Man Bites Dog" will get more coverage than "Dog Bites Man."
An earthquake that kills 10,000 people will get greater coverage than one that kills 10.
Celebrity and power
If a well-known politician or a famous actor does something, the story is more likely to be covered than if your neighbor does the same thing.
Often, if one outlet covers a story that engages readers, others will follow suit. Sometimes outlets try to distinguish themselves with a unique angle or approach to the story, but importantly they want to be seen covering the events that everyone else is discussing.
If an outlet knows it has a story that no one else has, and which is sure to get attention, it has a major incentive to publish it.
Editors generally prioritize events that happened recently over those that happened weeks or months ago. The 24-hour news cycle moves quickly and can influence what journalists cover and how long they spend on a certain story.
There are many complex and intersecting factors that contribute to how journalists and news outlets decide what news to cover and how to cover it. Understanding this can help us be more aware of what we see and why.

Finally, the stories we read, watch, and hear are not just the result of editors' choices. Each of us is responsible for the news we consume.
1Some of these items are based on McQuail, D. (2010). McQuail's Mass Communication Theory, 6th ed. Sage Publications, pp. 308-318.
Editorial Policy
Andriy Kulykov
Ukrainian journalist, co-founder of Hromadske Radio
Is it possible for a journalist to stay unprejudiced in a modern media organization? How can journalists ensure journalistic independence? How does the media news cycle work in real life?

Let's get some insight on editorial policy from a practitioner, Andriy Kulykov, Ukrainian journalist and co-founder of Hromadske Radio.
Watch the full interview here
Journalistic Standards
Find additional information here
Freedom of Press
and Censorship
"Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right."
This is how George Orwell describes the Ministry of Truth in the dystopian novel 1984. Despite its name, the Ministry does not disseminate truth. It rewrites the past to conform to the current Party doctrine and changes the record when the predictions of the supreme ruler, Big Brother, and his government turn out to be false. This way, Big Brother always appears to be right. This is George Orwell's version of a world without freedom of the press.
Freedom of the press is a complicated concept with many components and all countries struggle with some aspects of it.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "Freedom of the press is the right of newspapers, magazines, and other media to report news without being controlled by the government." An unbiased and independent press is a pillar of democracy. But, does freedom of the press exist everywhere?

Every year since 2002 the international organization Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans Frontiers, RSF), has published a World Press Freedom Index. It is based upon the organization's assessment of the countries' press freedom record in the previous year.
According to RSF "The global indicator and the regional indicators are calculated on the basis of the scores registered for each country. These country scores are calculated from the answers to a questionnaire in 20 languages that is completed by experts throughout the world, supported by a qualitative analysis. The scores measure constraints and violations, so the higher the score, the worse the situation."

In 2019, the ranking included 180 countries. The countries with most press freedom are the Scandinavian countries: Norway, Finland, and Sweden. Here, journalists experience considerably less political pressure or censorship compared to other countries and media ownership is regulated by law.

Ukraine is ranked 102nd. According to the report "Ukraine has a diversified media landscape and its authorities have adopted a number of long-awaited reforms since the 2014 revolution, including laws on transparency of media ownership and access to state-held information. But, as the new independent public broadcaster's under-financing has shown, these gains are fragile. Much more is needed to loosen the oligarchs' tight grip on the media, encourage editorial independence and combat impunity."
The lowest-ranked countries are Turkmenistan, North Korea, Eritrea, and China. In these countries, special laws prohibit distributing ideas that criticize the government. For example, more than 18,000 websites, including Google, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are blocked in mainland China. All these websites fall under an internet censorship policy that focuses mainly on preventing collective action such as protests, and distribution of pornography. It also censors criticism of the government, politics, and contentious national issues.

China is not the only country with an example of modern internet censorship. Roskomnadzor is an entire government body in Russia responsible for censorship in the media. Recently, the government adopted a cybersecurity law which gives regulators the power to isolate the Russian internet from the outside world and aims to expand the government's control over it.

The law's explanatory note says that it was initiated in consideration of "aggressive U.S. National Cybersecurity Strategy that was adopted in September 2018." The Kremlin and its allies in parliament have defended the legislation as a defensive move in case the United States cuts Russia off from the global internet.

When the press is intimidated, or their access is blocked, they often cannot tell citizens what their government is doing.

This allows governments to act with impunity and allows corrupt or incompetent politicians to stay in power.

In Orwell's world, this meant politicians rewrote history, while in our reality lack of press freedom means there is little public oversight and politicians can get away with corruption, electoral fraud, theft, and other crimes. Reporters and opinion writers should be able to freely discuss their opinions about the issues that concern them. This enables us to protest, pressure the government for change, and make informed decisions at the ballot box. Without freedom of the press, there is no independent institution to verify or debunk the government's pronouncements, hold power to account, and provide additional information and context that people need to know.