Free Markets, Free People
David Cay Johnson seems to think today’s journalism has a huge problem. And he confirms the “if it bleeds it leads” tendency of the media. This anecdote illustrates the point:
To understand how badly we’re doing the most basic work of journalism in covering the law enforcement beat, try sitting in a barbershop. When I was getting my last haircut, the noon news on the television—positioned to be impossible to avoid watching—began with a grisly murder. The well-educated man in the chair next to me started ranting about how crime is out of control.
But it isn’t. I told Frank, a regular, that crime isn’t running wild and chance of being burglarized today is less than one quarter what it was in 1980.
The shop turned so quiet you could have heard a hair fall to the floor had the scissors not stopped. The barbers and clients listened intently as I next told them about how the number of murders in America peaked back in the early 1990’s at a bit south of 25,000 and fell to fewer than 16,000 in 2009. When we take population growth into account, this means your chance of being murdered has almost been cut in half.
“So why is there so much crime on the news every day?” Diane, who was cutting Frank’s hair, asked.
“Because it’s cheap,” I replied. “And with crime news you only have to get the cops’ side of the story. There is no ethical duty to ask the arrested for their side of the story.”
Cheap news is a major reason that every day we are failing in our core mission of providing people with the knowledge they need for our democracy to function.
That’s reason one. Reason two? Something I’ve been critical of for some time:
I ran upstairs and bought The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I worked for seven years. Buried inside I found a half column about the new budget for Montgomery County, the wealthiest and most important county for the newspaper’s financial success. The story was mostly about the three commissioners yelling at each other. The total budget was mentioned, almost in passing, with no hint of whether it meant property taxes would go up or down, more money would be spent on roads or less, or any of the other basics that readers want to know.
For this I paid money? I could only imagine the reaction of the residents of Montgomery County.
Far too much of journalism consists of quoting what police, prosecutors, politicians and publicists say—and this is especially the case with beat reporters. It’s news on the cheap and most of it isn’t worth the time it takes to read, hear or watch. Don’t take my word for it. Instead look at declining circulation figures. People know value and they know when what they’re getting is worth their time or worth the steadily rising cost of a subscription.
I’m convinced one of the reasons for the rise of blogs is the decline of journalism into what Johnson calls “cheap journalism”. During elections we get the horserace coverage – the sensational, the quotes, etc. – but we rarely get even basic coverage of the issues.
My guess is editors would claim that no one is interested in the “in depth” coverage of issues, but I’d counter by saying that the popularity of blogs who do exactly that would seem to contradict the claim.
Johnson’s revelation about what is going on in the media comes from his own specific experience:
During the past 15 years as I focused my reporting on how the American economy works and the role of government in shaping how the benefits and burdens of the economy are distributed, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed at the superficial and often dead wrong assumptions permeating the news. Every day in highly respected newspapers I read well-crafted stories with information that in years past I would have embraced but now know is nonsense, displaying a lack of understanding of economic theory and the regulation of business. The stories even lack readily available official data on the economy and knowledge of the language and principles in the law, including the Constitution.
What these stories have in common is a reliance on what sources say rather than what the official record shows. If covering a beat means finding sources and sniffing out news, then a firm foundation of knowledge about the topic is essential, though not sufficient. Combine this with a curiosity to dig deeply into the myriad of documents that are in the public record—and then ask sources about what the documents show.
Note his point – lack of research, lack of knowledge, reliance on “what sources say” and the acceptance of what they say as gospel.
That’s not journalism, that’s the journalistic equivalent of re-printing press releases. And, given all the grousing about bloggers by many in the media, I have to ask, “where are the editors”? How did what Johnson reports become the norm that editors okay for publication? Who’s establishing and enforcing the standards of journalism if not the editors?
These are the folks that used to control what was fed to the news hungry population in the past – a control they exercised because of the cost of entry into the market. Now, with the internet and the democratization of publishing, they have competition from an unanticipated direction and it is indeed showing their weaknesses (and biases). In any market, if a need goes unfulfilled, someone will fill it. It just took the internet to remove that high bar to entry to prove the point. If they wonder why circulation and viewership numbers are down, Johnson’s criticism is one of the major reasons for their decline.