The Hierarchy of Influences Model is a useful framework for describing many of the things that affect the news content that audiences see, hear, and read. The model was proposed by media scholars Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese in their 1996 book, Mediating the Message. The crucial intervention of this model is that it helped formalize the idea that there are a number of different factors that influence news content, and that those factors operate across different levels, from the micro (individual) to the macro (society).
Put another way, individuals operate within larger social, economic, political, and technical systems and structures. Those systems and structures in turn influence how journalistic actors think and how they go about their work. That, in turn, influences the journalistic products that those actors produce.
The Hierarchy of Influences Model wasn’t designed to propose or explain causal relationships, such as if X happens then Y will happen. Instead, it is particularly useful in helping us appreciate that journalism isn’t shaped just by journalists or the organizations they work for. It is also shaped by a number of other factors.
The Hierarchy of Influences Model identifies five levels of influence: the individual level, the routine level, the organizational level, the social-institutional level, and the social systems level. These levels are ordered from the micro (smallest in scope) to the macro (broadest in scope), and the model presents them as a series of concentric circles.
The individual level refers to the biographical, psychological, and sociological characteristics of an individual social actor. For example, a journalist’s age, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and class status can all impact the news that person produces because previous life experiences associated with those attributes may color that person’s interpretation of an issue or what they choose to prioritize when covering it. That journalist’s personal values and beliefs (e.g., their religious beliefs or political attitudes) may similarly impact how they think about things. Even their role orientations, or what they think the purpose of journalism is and how journalism should be done, will impact how a journalist will seek to cover an issue.
These factors, like many others in the model, are not always conscious influences. For example, a journalist may not knowingly decide that they have to adopt a particular story angle because they lean toward liberalism or conservatism. Instead, their political preference may subconsciously orient them toward a particular story angle precisely because they believe certain philosophies — like personal choice or the social good — are especially important (which is probably what led them to hold that political preference to begin with).
The routine level refers to the patterned, repeated practices, forms, and rules that journalistic actors use to do their jobs. For example, this may include news values, or the set of criteria journalists apply to determine the newsworthiness of information. If they deem controversy to be an important news value, then they are generally more likely to cover issues and events that are controversial. This is especially true when there is disagreement among institutional elites, such as political party leaders, regarding an issue.
Another such factor may be an institutional preference to appear balanced by offering “both sides” of an issue an equal voice. That often results in coverage that positions both voices as equally legitimate, even when that is not the case. For example, anthropogenic climate change has long been considered a real phenomenon by leading scientists. However, for many years, journalistic coverage of climate change often gave voice to skeptics (who implied a lack of scientific consensus) to appear balanced.
Yet another such factor is a preference for certain styles of presenting information to audiences. One such style of writing is the inverted pyramid, which organizes information from most recent and important to least recent and important. This style is perceived as being efficient at quickly conveying important information, but it often comes at the expense of developing a compelling narrative. These factors operate at a higher level because they reflect what is seen as appropriate or normal among fellow journalistic actors.
The organizational level refers to the policies, unwritten rules, and economic imperatives within journalistic organizations (or whatever other entity a journalistic actor works for). Journalistic outlets must balance commercial concerns with professional ones. This balancing act is often most difficult for for-profit organizations, as they are expected to generate profits even as important journalism is often not cost-effective. However, even non-profit media have to work within a set budget to remain viable and promote their work in a way that can attract funding from different benefactors (e.g., foundations). As such, media ownership is often an important influence. While some owners (or ownership groups) are fairly hands-off (as long as economic objectives are met), others are more active in dictating coverage priorities and may even become directly involved in shaping the reporting of specific issues.
Additionally, the primary medium associated with a journalistic outlet (e.g., whether they see print as their primary media vehicle or if they focus on an online-first strategy) may also impact how they present information. After all, you wouldn’t expect an organization that focuses on print journalism to invest much in interactive data visualizations that only work online.
A third factor might be the geographic location where that organization is based, and whether they have news bureaus (satellite offices) elsewhere. For example, if a journalistic outlet is based in a major East Coast city, the social make-up of the journalists will be more likely to reflect the values and priorities of that place, even when they cover stories elsewhere in the country or abroad.
The social-institutional level refers to the norms, individuals, and organizations that operate outside a given journalistic organization. There is some overlap here with the aforementioned routines level, but this level includes information sources, other journalistic organizations, advertisers, and media policy, among other actors. For example, information sources (e.g., the witnesses a journalist may interview) can shape a news product by virtue of the words they choose to use and the information they choose to share — or, more simply, by being willing or unwilling to talk to the journalist in the first place. Some journalistic outlets can influence general news coverage themselves by serving as ‘pack leaders’ that other outlets seek to follow or imitate. They can also influence coverage by publishing stories that competing organizations may then choose to avoid (because those stories will be thought of as ‘already having been done’).
Advertisers can impact coverage by demanding that their ads only be shown alongside positive coverage. After all, they likely do not want their products to be associated with negative emotions or connotations. That, in turn, can result in important (but typically exhausting) stories receiving inadequate coverage, or having portions of a news product be reserved for more-positive feature stories. Conversely, advertisers can threaten to withdraw ads if they perceive that a journalistic outlet represents values that do not reflect their own.
Media policy can restrict what journalistic outlets can report on, or how they may report on those things. For example, some countries have strict state secrets laws that prevent journalistic outlets from publishing anything that the government deems to be threatening to national security. Similarly, some countries around the world have adopted “fake news” laws that enable government authorities to fine (or shut down) journalists and outlets that produce news the authorities do not agree with. In both of these examples, media policy can have a “chilling effect” on what journalists choose to write (or write about). Conversely, some countries can adopt media policies that protect journalists from frivolous lawsuits by implementing serious penalties for individuals who sue journalists in bad faith.
The social systems level refers to the symbolic frameworks of norms, values, and beliefs that reside at the societal level. This is the most macro level, and it simply reflects the sorts of ideas that are more generally accepted within a broad society. For example, in the United States, capitalism remains the dominant economic system. This results in different issues being more likely to be framed in terms of how they might affect private ownership, free markets, and the pursuit of profit. Similarly, democratic values remain dominant within U.S. politics. That, in turn, leads to beliefs that the role of journalistic media in the U.S. is to inform citizens so they may better participate in self-governance. In less-capitalistic social systems, those same issues may be more likely to be framed primarily in terms of the collective good. Similarly, in autocratic social systems, journalists will be more likely to believe that their job is to help the government maintain social order.
The Hierarchy of Influences Model does not presume that any of the levels discussed here is more important than another. It also makes no claims about the directionality of influences. (For example, the social systems level is not theorized to be the one that shapes individuals, nor the other way around.) Instead, it views those levels as frequently acting upon one another: Individuals collectively shape values and norms at the social systems level, even as those values and norms help enable and restrict the behaviors of individuals within that society.
Similarly, each factor can operate independently from the other factors or in conjunction with one or more. For example, the influence of advertisers on a particular organization may be entirely independent from the dominant presentation style of that organization. Regardless of who is advertising or how much advertising there is, the organization may continue to use the inverted pyramid style of writing. However, if an organization is for-profit and has aggressive profit targets, then the existing influence of advertisers may become even stronger.
We have only covered a few of the factors identified by the Hierarchy of Influences Model here. There are dozens more, and you can learn more about them in the most recent edition of Mediating the Message. While it is less important to know how to classify each potential influence into a particular level, it is very useful to simply recognize that a great many things can influence journalists and journalism, and that these influences can emanate from individuals to society as a whole.
It is important to note that journalism is rapidly changing as new social actors, technological actants, and journalistic activities emerge or become increasingly important. For example, companies like Facebook and Google have staked important positions within news production and distribution, even though they claim they are not media organizations themselves. Similarly, some new digital advertising technologies have made it harder for advertisers to know exactly where their ads will be placed online, and for online news organizations to know which ads will appear alongside their stories.
In short, as journalism (and the environments it operates within) changes, so do the factors that might influence it, as well as the nature and extent of the influence those factors exert. However, what remains unchanged is that journalism is regularly influenced in important ways by an array of different things.
The Hierarchy of Influences Model describes the various factors that affect news content, organized on a continuum from a micro level to a macro level.
The model identifies five levels: the individual level, the routine level, the organizational level, the social-institutional level, and the social systems level.
The model does not presume that any one level is more important than another, or that influence runs in one direction. Instead, all of these forces are simultaneously acting upon the production of news content.
Journalism is rapidly changing, and the nature and extent of each influence is changing with it.