British vs. American newspapers and journalistic styles
The popular stereotype that 'the British' are more erudite, well-spoken and intelligent than Americans persists, as can be seen in the tendency to bestow a British accent upon any characters who are intended to be perceived as cold, aloof, and intellectual in American sitcoms. In the world of newspapers, however, such stereotypes evaporate. The British possess some of the most widely-read newspapers in the world. However, it is often American papers like New York Times that are considered the superior newspapers of record, even more so than the London Times in the eyes of most British journalists. Despite the homogenization of the news due to the permeation of online media culture, British and American newspapers continue to have distinctly different characters. In Great Britain, newspapers are expected to be far more partisan and far less scrupulously fact-checked than their American counterparts. This is not simply true of the famously trashy British tabloids, but even of the most respected British newspapers. When comparing newspapers in America with newspapers in Great Britain of the same caliber, media analysts concur that each nation has a vastly different view of what constitutes real, worthy news.
On first glance of a British and an American feature article, a notable discrepancy is apparent. The British article is likely to be shorter -- there are no multipage stories in British newspapers on par with The New York Times Magazine in the Sunday Times magazine. According to an editor of the British Telegraph, the right-leaning paper: "There is clearly a different media culture in the UK. We cut to the chase more quickly. In general, our stories are shorter, less ponderous and academic in tone, more 'spun' or skewed towards a particular conclusion, punchier and more entertaining" ("British vs. American Journalism," Britain and America, 2007). For example, on July 9, 2012, the New York Times featured headlines such as "A building spree is followed by the ax," on the European debt crisis, versus the Times which had headlines emblazoned amongst its 'serious' news stories such as: "The lengths that Chinese men go to get a girlfriend" and "A mother's plea: 'Please let me see the body of my son.'
British newspapers -- and not simply tabloids -- have been widely criticized for being "tendentious, inaccurate, shoddily-researched, lacking in rigour and unfair" for their ugly portraits of politicians and celebrities alike ("British vs. American Journalism," Britain and America, 2007). This is designed to sell newspapers and generate controversy with 'snark' rather than for any ostensible journalistic purpose. Even the treatment of serious medical issues is given a humorous 'spin,' such as a recent article entitled "Drunkorexia" in the liberal newspaper of record, The Independent. The article's subject was that of attractive young women who starve themselves during the week so they can drink on the weekends. In contrast, the New York Times on the same day also had a diet article -- but one which advocated a sensible, balanced diet as a means of weight loss entitled "In dieting, magic isn't a substitute for science."
The distinct difference in tone between British and American newspapers may partially be structural -- even financial in nature. Fact-checking is less stringent in British newspapers, and British newspapers have fewer resources devoted to the practice in terms of manpower ("British vs. American Journalism," Britain and America, 2007). This also means fewer resources to do extensive background research in Britain on medical and financial issues in mainstream papers, in contrasts to publications like The New York Times. Furthermore, most of the major 'serious' newspapers such as the Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, and Times are known for being left-leaning or right-leaning, and the are not read by the British public with an expectation that they will provide a source of uncritical and unbiased truth. Readers turn to newspapers as much for entertainment and to have their biases reaffirmed than they do for information.
This does not necessarily mean that the British model of accepted bias is inherently inferior to that of the American model of objectivity. The New York Times is often called the 'grey lady' because of its supposedly staid and incorruptible image, but there have been several scandals regarding unchecked 'created' news stories in recent years. And a veneer of objectivity may simply conceal bias in the major mainstream news sources. In the world of news broadcasting "the top five programmers - Viacom/CBS, Disney/ABC, NBC, Time Warner and News Corp./Fox - now control 75% of prime-time programming and are projected to increase their share to 85%" (Postman 2008: 21). Despite its known conservative bias, Fox news presents itself as 'truth,' not as partisanship, and the fight between American partisan news sources as to which is the truly objective source of information (Fox vs. MSNBC) could suggest that the open, honest British model where bias in journalism is accepted and even welcomed may actually be less confusing for viewers. A reader in Britain knows that the buyer must always 'beware' about what news he or she is consuming.
Some believe that this lack of pretention of objectivity is one reason why British newspapers tend to be more widely read than American newspapers, the latter of which has shown a marked drop in readership. "Many British national newspapers top American papers in circulation -- that in a country of about 58 million people...The British national newspapers are aligned with the various political factions in England. They make no pretence of objectivity. And, according to several landmark studies dating back to the 1950s, citizens find partisan information more politically useful than so-called objective information" ("American vs. British newspapers," Rhetorica, 2002). The numbers of British readers of tabloids, versus Americans, is staggering: with five times as many people as the UK in the U.S., "even Murdoch's New York Post, as close to a British-style tabloid as we have, has a circulation of just half a million. News of the World has five times that. The Sun has six times the circulation" (Chittum 2011). However, this does not explain how, in the age of the Internet, when it is very easy to find biased sources to read all over the world, the tradition of reading print news remains so hard to shake in England. The culture of reading is ingrained in Great Britain more securely, perhaps, than it is in America. Or a culture of news-as-entertainment also ensures a more secure base of readership in the UK.
In Britain, it is accepted that news must function as entertainment and is consumer-directed, with little talk of higher journalistic ideals. In the U.S., during the death of a celebrity, there is often much breast-beating in the media that too much coverage is extended to non-serious and entertainment related news. In his book, How to Watch TV, Neil Postman and Steven Powers bemoan what they see as a dearth of serious journalism: "When providing entertainment, the public's preferences must be paramount. But news is different. There are things the public must know whether or not they 'like' it.... News is not entertainment. It is a necessity in a democratic society" (Postman & Powers 2008: 9-10). But such self-critical analysis in the UK has been rare until recently, amongst journalists.
The harsher tone of the British press is likely rooted in the expectations of 'what sells' to the British public, who tend to prefer less sentimental 'good news' stories than Americans. This is why British news tends to lack some of the reverence for institutions such as the military and the office of the presidency espoused within the America media. Overall, "British journalism is more irreverent, more anti-establishment, more cynical...on occasions public figures are needlessly mocked and torn down" ("British vs. American Journalism," Britain and America, 2007). This irreverence has been the wellspring of Britain's tabloid culture, and while America does possess tabloids, even institutions such as The National Enquirer have lacked the cultural significance and dominance of their British counterparts.
However, other differences are likely rooted in the way newspapers are financed in America, not simply general cultural factors: "In America most papers are subscription-based regional monopolies, which leads them to be more balanced in their coverage...[in the U.S.] the few remaining strands of tabloid journalism are being cut, as slimmed-down newspapers focus on local fare. What is more, good American tabloid journalists seem in scarce supply, probably a result of sharply varying ethics (think puritanical American professionalism vs. anything-goes British ruthlessness). The New York Post and the National Enquirer more than once felt the need to import British hacks" ("The popular press." The Economist, 2011).
Of course, British tabloids have recently become embroiled in a series of scandals, most notably that of Rupert Murdoch's 'phone hacking' scandal, in which reporters hacked the voice mail of a dead girl for possible story clues, thus corrupting the police investigation and causing her family to have false hope that the girl was alive. When asked if such a thing could occur in America, one journalism…