The Analysis of the Article “Totem & Taboo: the Culture of the News Media” by Caryl Rivers

May 15, 2021 by Essay Writer

Objectivity is the Name of the Game

Caryl Rivers, a “nationally known author, journalist, columnist, media critic and professor of journalism at Boston University” (“Caryl Rivers”), in her essay “Totem and Taboo: The Culture of the News Media” (1996), excerpted from her book Slick Spins and Fractured Facts: How Cultural Myths Distort the News, asserts that the news media is not as objective as it presumes. Rivers supports her argument with a multitude of examples, both historical and personal experiences, along with facts and references to other individuals connected to journalism. She writes to uncover the “cultural myths” that inherently influence the news media to promote better, more accurate reporting that is based on reality. Rivers writes to inform an intended audience of already-established journalists as well as future, beginning journalists. However, her use of everyday language could even attract readers of the general public who are interested in such a topic as journalism or simply possess a personal desire to become a better observer of information presented by the news media.

Caryl Rivers effectively addresses the notion of objectivity in news media and convinces the audience, particularly journalists, to regard objectivity with higher importance by thinking more deeply and more honestly about their reporting through the use of all three rhetorical appeals (pathos, ethos, logos) and through writing style.Caryl Rivers begins her lengthy yet intriguing essay with the appeal of pathos. “The news media are usually thought of as agents for change, and sometimes this is true…Bad news can in fact persuade people that the world is much more dangerous than it is” (Rivers 48). Rivers’ “hook” sentence introducing her essay plus the first sentence of her second paragraph certainly catch the reader’s attention as the statement elicits readers to visualize and reflect on stories that have proven in the past to be powerful invites for national change as the subject matter played on the emotional strings of the general public’s heart. But, of course, not all news stories have brought about positive change.

The news media has a tendency to extensively highlight the dark side of the world, which can “persuade people that the world is much more dangerous than it is” (Rivers 48). For example, Rivers mentions crime, a subject that floods news reports daily. Due to the high coverage of crime in the news, people tend to “see the world as much more threatening and filled with menace” (Rivers 48), but the statistical data regarding crime rates tells a different story. Over the course of history, new laws and restrictions have been implemented, and as a result, a progressive decline in violence. Rivers clueing the audience into the fact that the media loves to intensify its coverage of certain topics, despite the reality of the contradictory statistics behind such matters, provokes feelings of concern and consciousness among readers since “[w]e tend to believe what is spread before us, because the media have such an air of authority” (Rivers 50).

Another instance in which Rivers appeals to the emotions of the reader is when she discusses a specific illusion – the lack of sympathy for the individuals that a journalist reports on – that objectivity tends to create.We [journalists] are often put in difficult situations regarding other human beings. We criticize them. We sometimes reveal that they are doing things that are wrong. We invade their private worlds in times of pain. Our job – to find and report the truth as best we can – may indeed result in harm to others. We ought not to pretend that all we feel is the buzz and clang of electronic gears when this happens. We ought to agonize over that. It will keep us honest – and human. We can try to be unbiased; we can try to be fair. But we will never really be objective. And we should not dodge moral responsibility in the name of this impossible goal. (Rivers 54).

This passage certainly carries a heavy emotional impact as it reminds the general public and journalists alike that journalism can be a harsh business since it requires the judgement of other individuals and publicly. The way in which the journalist frames a story could greatly sway the thoughts and opinions of peers regarding such individuals. Not to mention, this power that the journalist holds could easily destroy the reputation of an individual. Rivers recommends that journalists account for their emotions to help better enable them to write more truthfully and respectably. Throughout her essay, Caryl Rivers skillfully utilizes the appeal of ethos. First, she establishes authority through her credentials. Rivers is a critically acclaimed journalist and novelist.

In 2007, the Society of Professional Journalists awarded her with the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. Furthermore, she has had many publications in several major American newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, and continuously contributes pieces to the American news blog, the Huffington Post. Rivers’ titles, along with the multiple occasions in which she inserts a personal experience of being a journalist herself and how she has seen the subjectivity of the news media first-hand, assures her audience that they can trust what she has to say concerning journalism and its lack of objectivity. She further establishes credibility through her citational inclusion of other authoritative individuals. For example, Rivers quotes James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, to support her claim of how the intensity of coverage (in this specific case, crime) by the news media inadvertently leads viewers to believe in a distorted reality (48).

Moreover, she enlists the expertise of Theodore L. Glasser, a communications professor at Stanford University and author of books regarding journalism, and Howard Kurtz, a “journalist and author best known for his coverage of the media” (“Howard Kurtz”). Clearly, both Glasser and Kurtz are also especially knowledgeable in journalism, the very topic that Rivers discusses in her essay. Along with the heavily-weighted appeal to ethos, Caryl Rivers considerably employs the appeal of logos. She shares her personal experiences as a journalist to strengthen her arguments. For instance, Rivers examines how the news media is predominantly white men and regards “[t]he set of viewpoints, ideas, and attitudes that often comes with being male or being white…as neutral and unbiased…[whereas] people with a different set of attitudes are nearly always seen as being biased or as being ‘advocates’” (52).

This bias against race and gender undeniably fosters a lack of objectivity within the media. To illustrate this fact, Rivers recounts a discussion she had with a male East Coast newspaper reporter. The reporter felt that women and blacks “didn’t really have it so bad anymore and that it was white men who were being discriminated against” based on a study that revealed bias against girls from school teachers (Rivers 52). Rivers deduced that the reporter had not done any prior research concerning this topic to support his claim because she had reviewed the research and the recent studies regarding the discrimination issue for a book she had written, and the evidence – “videos in which female teachers, unaware of their behavior, ignored the waving hands of little girls in the front row time and again to call on boys in the back” – clearly indicated that “bias against girls is a real phenomenon” (53).

Journalists are expected to examine as much research as possible to arrive at a more objective conclusion, not deem one small portion of a sample as complete representation. Rivers further demonstrates this bias against women and blacks with another personal story.Objectivity often does not mean a hard examination of all “facts” but only of those that the gatekeeper suspects. Once I [Rivers] was doing an article for a newspaper in which I used as my major sources a black academician and a female professor. But an editor asked me to add another source, a white male professor who had no history of research in the area. Clearly, the editor simply did not have confidence in the “facts” offered by the woman and the black, believing – probably subconsciously – that they were somehow suspect.

When my source was a white male, I have never been asked to go and find a woman or a black to bolster the credibility of the information, but the reverse has often been true. (Rivers 54)History has time and again perceived women and blacks (or any other race besides white) as a minority and therefore are not fully trustworthy. As previously mentioned, the news media, and thus the standards of objective reporting, favors the opinions of white men because maleness and whiteness are regarded as the “norm” of society. However, as Rivers points out, this bias against women and blacks leads to inaccurate and dishonest journalism since a female or black individual knowledgeable of the topic at-hand due to respective careers in that field is not seen as legitimate sources but rather a white male who holds no prior knowledge of the topic is.

Furthermore, Rivers incorporates statistical data throughout her essay to appeal to the reader’s logic. For example, Rivers points out that typically it is the news media editor who decides what stories are printed, and as a result, “journalists often mistake the handy conventional wisdom, or the latest fad or pronouncement from a media-anointed guru, as actual fact” (50). Consequently, the “uncritical acceptance of such ahistoric ideas [like] the notion that welfare created illegitimacy” arises, “[b]ut one-third of births in pre-Revolutionary War Concord were illegitimate, and [the] founding mothers were not on food stamps” (Rivers 50). It is obviously illogical to think that a present-day program is the cause of an issue that existed in the past. Therefore, journalists and viewers alike need to keep this mind and remember to proactively fact-check claims because the “golden past” we tend to believe in does not exist.

Another occasion in which Rivers utilizes a statistical fact to prove her point is in her discussion of the subjectivity of the news media in focusing their coverage primarily on those of the upper middle-class because it is those stories that “elite” journalists are interested in.It was not surprising that in the 1992 presidential election the problems of cities and the issues of poverty were barely mentioned, and instead a middle-class tax cut was debated roundly. The Clinton camp didn’t want to talk about poor people or blacks, because blacks weren’t going to vote Republican, and Clinton knew the election lay with the middle class. George Bush wasn’t about to dwell on poverty. The boys (and girls) on the bus didn’t push the issues. (Rivers 51)This lack of coverage of the issues faced by the working-class and poor leaves a major imprint of subjectivity rather than objectivity within the news media, especially when millions of Americans struggle with issues as lay-offs and making bill payments daily.

While Caryl Rivers’ usage of the three rhetorical appeals provides an ample amount of support for her case, her writing style also played an important role in solidifying her argument. Rivers structured her essay with varying sentence lengths to keep the audience interested. She effectively organized each new thought into a separate paragraph to avoid lengthy paragraphs and keep the reader attentive and better focus her arguments. Her use of informal yet strong words and phrases along with first- and second-person pronouns connected Rivers to her audience. In addition, her personal stories as a journalist and her admittance of committing a common mistake that many young journalists unintentionally make helps the readers, especially fellow journalists, to identify with Rivers as well as confirms Rivers’ well-intentioned motive for addressing the issue of objectivity in the news media, which she sums up at the very end of her essay.

Most often the biases [Rivers] discuss[es] are subconscious and unintentional. [Rivers] believe[s] most journalists are conscientious and want to do a good job. That their thinking has been shaped by forces and ideas they do not realize they possess is no more an indictment of journalists than it is of all Americans – except that what journalists write and say is so important. (Rivers 57)Moreover, Rivers even incorporates a couple of parallel sentences to enhance her ideas. One instance is in her first paragraph: “…people tend to believe that the world was once more orderly and just, especially when today seems chaotic and disordered” (Rivers 48). She matches “orderly” and “just” with their opposites of “chaotic” and “disordered” to create a parallel construction to show the equal importance of the two ideas. Another instance is found much further into Rivers’ essay as she discusses how the opinions of white men are “seen as neutral and unbiased” whereas the opinions of those of a different gender or race are “seen as being biased or as being advocat[ing]” (Rivers 52).

Again, she compares “neutral” and “unbiased” with “advocat[ing]” and “biased” to show the relationship between the two concepts. Lastly, Rivers utilizes transitional words and phrases along with proper grammar, spelling and punctuation throughout her piece. Ultimately, Rivers pieces all these important writing elements together to not only help build her case in an orderly, effective manner but also to create a cohesive essay.The news media is as influential, if not more, today as it has been in the past. News stories are so readily available nowadays, and we are constantly bombarded with an overload of information from the news media that it can sometimes prove difficult to distinguish the more objective reports from those that are highly more subjective.

As Rivers notes, journalists “are at heart storytellers, not scientists. Journalism is more art than science, and the notion that [journalists] are androids, collecting, weighing, and measuring ‘facts’ that are as fixed and intractable as moon rocks, is a chilling one” (53). Current-working journalists should not dismiss objectivity due to this fact nor should beginning journalists be repelled from pursuing a career in journalism because of this inevitability, but rather they should embrace this reality to strive to do their best in their observation and presentation of news stories. It is like the well-known saying of Vince Lombardi: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” Furthermore, keeping in mind that journalists are also human and thus “journalism is more art than science,” Rivers appeals to the general public that “[i]n any event, take what you read and hear in the media with a grain of salt” (50).

All in all, Caryl Rivers successfully applies the key writing elements of pathos, ethos and logos, along with strong yet casual vocabulary, written with a candid tone, to bring insight into how the news media is inherently biased and that journalists, especially, should be more aware of the factors that influence their approach and delivery of news in order to satisfy the moral responsibility they hold in journalism, despite the fact that achieving complete, unwavering objectivity is not humanly possible.

Works Cited:

  1. “Caryl Rivers.” BU | College of Communication, Boston University,
  2. “Howard Kurtz.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 July 2018,
  3. Howard_Kurtz.Rivers, Caryl. “Totem and Taboo: The Culture of the News Media.” Slick Spins and Fractured Facts: How Cultural Myths Distort the News. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. 1–16.
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