French Connections

What do different press styles have to do with distinct political cultures?

If you think about European print media at all, you are likely to think of newspapers that stake out ideologically precise points along the political spectrum from left to right, in contrast to an American press that is much more solidly committed to detached, objective reporting that balances the views of major parties—a Republican for every Democrat, a defense attorney for every prosecutor; and, in general, reporting rather than European advocacy.

But Rodney Benson, associate professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, sees things differently. In “What Makes for a Critical Press? A Case Study of French and U.S. Immigration News Coverage,” published in the January issue of the International Journal of Press/Politics, Benson finds that the papers of Paris approach the news in ways more likely than U.S. papers to display a variety of viewpoints on major issues of the day. Benson chose for his comparative study the case of immigration politics, which recently have been surprisingly similar in France and the U.S., and found that Parisian newspapers offered more criticism of the government’s position on immigration across hundreds of news stories examined than did leading American newspapers. Focusing on years in the 1990s and 2000s when conflicts over immigration were heightened, he found that the French media offered “more than twice as many critical statements as U.S. coverage.”

This is not just because the French news stories were longer (although they were); if you compare criticisms per thousand words of text, the French still provide 60 percent more criticisms. Why? Benson acknowledges a variety of relevant differences that may help explain his results, but perhaps his most intriguing claim is that it is partly a matter of format. French newspapers are far more likely to provide what he calls “article ensembles” on the front page on significant public controversies—and these ensembles make an effort to give voice to a variety of viewpoints and perspectives on the topic at hand. U.S. newspapers do this sort of thing much more rarely.

It is not, Benson concludes, that the French press is “partisan” and the U.S. press “objective.” Instead, says Benson, the French press is “more ‘engaged’ with partisan politics than the U.S. press and more likely to hold one or the other of the dominant parties accountable for their words and actions. In contrast, U.S. journalists were primarily critical of government as a bureaucratic institution, both reflecting and perhaps helping to reproduce antistatist attitudes.”

The French newspapers are more critical of government, Benson notes, despite the fact that they receive a variety of direct and indirect government subsidies. Within the French press, the papers most economically independent of government—those with the most advertising income—are no more critical than newspapers with less advertising.

Is greater criticism greater journalistic virtue? This seems to be Benson’s subtext, but his findings can be read differently. It may simply be a matter of different countries, different cultures. As Benson suggests, it is part of journalistic tradition in France to emphasize “reasoned debate among elites,” and part of U.S. journalistic culture to take for granted “narrative-driven formats,” often focused on persons and personal attributes rather than ideas and ideologies. (And the U.S. press reaches notably more people than the French—in 2000, 264 sales per thousand adults compared to 190 in France.) These differences may come from deep patterns in the two societies—when Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, he found that Americans “displayed a less active taste than the French for generalizations. That is above all true for political generalizations.”

There’s a lesson here, not so much that we should (or even could) adopt French ways, but that our journalism is shaped by American habits that have little to do with natural human inclinations to storytelling and nothing to do with righteous orientation to truth and fairness. U.S. journalism is not an observer and arbiter of American ways but it is itself an American way, a set of practices shaped by the very culture it seeks to examine from the outside.

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Michael Schudson and Julia Sonnevend write The Research Report for CJR.