What’s News and Who Says So?

The State of the News Media 2006 presents some
difficult data about newsgathering and the quality of news today.
(Correction: In rushing to connect online while traveling outside the U.S., I inadvertently mis-attributed the State of the News Media 2006. It is by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. I read about it in a column on Poynter. In my haste I did not make this distinction clear. I regret the error.)

I noticed it many years ago when I worked in Omaha but it became part of the background reality that disappeared in the daily practice of journalism. The local newspaper, a metropolitan daily known as the Omaha World Herald, set the agenda for electronic newsgathering in the city. The newspaper had the most reporters digging into the widest range of stories. Television and radio stations often took what was reported in the paper and found their own angle on major stories, or simply re-packaged them for broadcast. And in each case the end result was less substantial because the time allocation is so different. Broadcast news is not long-form journalism.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism study State of the News Media 2006 offers little hope that newsgathering is getter better. If metro dailies are the fulcrum of news reporting, it looks bleak because among all media they are in the most decline.

Metro dailies bring us suburban, state, national and international news. The Poynter survey calls them “one-stop news outlets.” As they shrink, the number of places delivering information may actually increase as niche publications appeal to smaller, special interest audiences. Paradoxically, the overall result is smaller audiences with focused interests.

What’s so bad about this? The Poynter study suggests it makes it easier for the those who want to control information. The trend away from journalists with specialties toward generalists has practical results and they aren’t good for the audience. The coverage is less deep and often uniform. Without specialists, the tendency is for the same spokespersons to be cited giving us the same interpretation of events, the so-called “herd mentality.”

A second disturbing trend is the decline of the watch-dog function. Journalists who act as investigators in the public interest are becoming history. This trend is particularly important in coverage of state and local politics where wrongdoing will get less attention as large dailies give ground.

And Poynter says this reveals the battle between the idealists and accountants in the newsroom is over. Quality journalism does not translate into greater readership. Quality reporting doesn’t result in improved bottom lines. I interpret this to mean it’s more difficult to pour resources into costly investigative pieces that don’t result in revenue. The journalist who views herself as an advocate for the public interest has a harder time making the claim, and worse, doing the job today. Public interest journalism is giving way to advocacy journalism.

I’ve heard the claims about bias in the media and I’ve been frustrated at the way some journalism has been practiced. There are plenty of examples. But this watchdog function is one that has been valuable when it works well, and it has often worked well. From the Pentagon Papers to treatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital and a host of other important national and local stories, it is a valuable part of our civic life.

I’m traveling outside the U.S. as I write this and the difference in news reporting while in the U.S. and from outside is striking. Even the CNN network reveals remarkable differences. CNN International reports on the U.S. government significantly differently to the world audience than CNN reports to the U.S. audience. One current example is the reaction to the Mugabe government retention and beatings of opposition group leaders in Zimbabwe. This item is getting heavy play on CNN International but little attention on CNN reports inside the U.S. according to those I’m talking with back home.

This is a result of the tailoring of news around niche interests. Apparently international news isn’t considered a broad enough interest to U.S. audiences to merit comprehensive coverage. This attitude also drives reports that tell us how many U.S. citizens were affected by a tragedy abroad before telling us how it affected local residents.

It comes down to what’s news and who says so? Increasingly, as reporting is tailored to individual interests it is whatever the news providers believe will catch the eyes of individuals who can move on to the next story with one keyboard stroke or the flick of the remote control.

We’re not the better for it.

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