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How Journalism is killing the media

Submitted by Alex_Wukman on November 28, 2011 – 4:44 pm3 Comments
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By Alex Wukman

If there’s one thing the national press likes to report on more than a sex scandal it’s the state of their industry. From the ongoing narrative of conservative victimization and liberal bias portrayed in the right wing blogosphere to left wing organizations’ perpetual perusal of the 168 hours a week of content put out by Fox News for any mistakes or inaccuracies; the news media, by it’s very nature, is self reflective. So it was no surprise when ABC News’ political webcast Topline invited Emmy Award Winning Journalist, NPR Commentator and Associate Professor at the  USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism Judy Muller on for a segment to promote her new book praising small town journalism.

The gist of Muller’s three-and-a-half minute segment can be summed up in one tweet sent by ABC News’ Senior Washington Editor and Topline host Rick Klein sent around noon on Thursday, June 30: Judy Muller “the death of local journalism is false”. weeklies are thriving because of “hyper-localism.” Muller spent much of her segment cheer leading small town papers and extolling the virtues of a media viewpoint that, frankly, is as out of date and under performing as a 1976 Ford Pinto.

Before I go any farther I should perhaps say something about myself and why I feel I am qualified to comment on this subject. As long time readers of this website know despite living in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, an area known as Texas’ equivalent of the East Village, for most of the last decade I spent from January 2008 to November 2010 working as a reporter in an extremely conservative part of rural East Texas. It was a place where people routinely held purification ceremonies for towns that allow the sale of liquor and every city council and school board meeting, as well as high school graduation, football and baseball game, began with a prayer that ended “in Jesus’ name.” And no one thought a thing about it.

I had someone follow me for 60 miles across three counties because I asked questions suggesting that a middle school student may have been bullied to the point of suicide.  I was insulted because I, as a man, had hair that went below my collar. High school students tried to pick fights with me because I drove a yellow car. I went to school board meetings where, after two years of covering the district, all 30 people attending the meeting stood in the back of the room rather than sit next to me, simply because I was “an outsider.” I watched Congressmen listen to Birther and Tea Party conspiracy theories and not dispute the false assumption that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen. I was instructed not to comment on obviously false beliefs, incorrect statements and dangerously myopic policy decisions made by local, state and national elected officials because it could have been perceived as showing a bias. I was told that an incumbent district judge running for re-election’s statements that all atheists and agnostics were “extremists” was not germane to the issues being discussed in a debate.

In other words, I think I know a thing or two about small town journalism and how it plays into the rest of the media. The problems that I saw first hand working for a small town newspaper are in no way unique to rural America. It’s actually quite the opposite, these problems are so widespread that they have become common tropes that are, more often than not, taught to aspiring undergrads at journalism schools.

Before I continue identifying the problems with modern American journalism via a laundry list of complaints, it’s important to make a few distinctions. First and foremost: journalism is not the media and the media is not journalism. Despite what anyone may think, journalism is nothing more than a set of recently developed tools that can be used to tell a story. Newspaper impartiality and journalist objectivity are not written into the Constitution, they are not codified in precedent setting decisions handed down by the Supreme Court and no one has to take a solemn pledge to faithfully represent both sides of every issue before they can get a small business license or set up a DBA to run a publication.

It is a common misconception, amongst those with only a passing familiarity of the history of American mass media, that when Benjamin Franklin and other colonial newspaper publishers distributed their fish wrap the papers presented both sides of the controversial stamp act. For most of America’s history, newspapers were more akin to propaganda wings of political parties than bias-less news gathering organizations. It wasn’t until industrialisation and progressivism began to reshape the country in the late 1800 and early 1900s that newspapers began to strive to “be objective.” The inverted pyramid approach to writing a news story-ledes that answer who, what, where, when, why and how along with articles organized from most to least important information-didn’t exist in any meaningful way prior to the start of the Twentieth Century.

And over the next 100-or-so years this psuedo-impartial, easy to consume style of reporting became the norm. It’s now so ingrained in the American media landscape that almost any deviation from the formula is seen as an apostasy. And it’s the number one thing that is killing newspapers. The over reliance on impartiality, or as NYU Journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen famously called it “The View from Nowhere,” this false objectivity feeds distrust and creates fabricated firestorms. As anyone who has been paying attention over the last few months knows two low level NPR employees have been fired for attending Occupy Wall Street affiliated events on their own free time. And as happens any time a journalist, even a part time web editor for a regionally distributed news show, is terminated more ‘seasoned professionals’ begin the hand wringing. And, predictably,  the responses either fall into the “you knew what you were getting into when you took the job” camp or the “are we seriously having this discussion in the age of Fox News and the internet” approach.

Regardless of whether the publication is primarily focused on delivering information via dead trees or digital bits, embracing false objectivity does little to serve the audience. How does knowing next-to-nothing about Brian Williams help an NBC Nightly News viewer trust the stories he presents? Former L.A. Weekly editor Rueben Martinez, full disclosure I took an essay writing class taught by Martinez about 9 years ago, described the point of view of the nightly news as “the voice of a lieing god.” Of course there is the flip side, media outlets that encourage their writers to fully disclose anything and everything, mistaking triviality for candor. How does letting a reader know that Slate writers Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix used to date help the reader understand the explosion of Young Adult fiction over the last decade? Full disclosure: I read Slate on a fairly regular basis. It is also worth mentioning that a lack of disclosure can, at times, be seen as a motive for criticism. Full disclosure: I don’t fucking care about full disclosure.

“The View from Nowhere” often goes hand-in-hand with on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand journalism. A style of coverage that comes from a belief that, with any subject, both sides of the story have to be given equal weight, regardless of the ramifications. The media’s reaction to the “controversy” surrounding the long discredited link between autism and vaccines, giving a former Playboy Playmate the same level of credibility as actual scientists, has not only been called (cached) one of the great failures of journalism it has also been cited as a possible cause for the re-emergence of potentially fatal childhood diseases. The media’s failure to do due diligence on the issue, and letting viewers and readers decide, only served to reinforce a segment of the population’s distrust in the government.

And the population’s reaction to the vaccine controversy serves to illustrate another failure of American journalism, the inability to frame a story in a non-confrontational manner. As Jon Stewart recently pointed out in a much discussed visit to Fox News, the media is slaved to controversy and sensationalism. Stewart’s criticism cut a little too close to the bone for most journalists, even provoking Peter Grier at the normally staid Christian Science Monitor to rhetorically ask “how else can we make the news understandable? How else can we couch it in storytelling terms that average people can understand?”What Grier and others fail to understand is that people don’t turn to the news for controversy and screaming matches, they turn to it to understand the world around them. Or at least they used to.

As Farhad Manjoo discussed in his 2008 book True Enough: Learning to live in a Post-Fact Society news audiences now seek information sources that reinforce their pre-existing belief systems, a phenomenon known in psychology as confirmation bias. As brilliant as Manjoo’s book is, he failed to point out one of the more insidious aspects of confirmation bias, the way it influences editorial decisions at a news organization. How frequently does an editor utter some variation on “our audience isn’t interested in that” or “that won’t play to our demographic?” Often for small town media the killing of a proposed article stems from the fact that the story is outside of the coverage area or lacks a suitable, ‘hook’, issues I’ll return to later. However, another reason for killing a proposed article is that what’s being reported isn’t “reflective of the community.”

When a story, say about the difficulties of being a homosexual in a rural town, is killed because the editor doesn’t believe it meets the community’s standards the news organization itself has become a victim of a particular type of confirmation bias, the idea that “this is what our audience wants and we are obligated to give it to them.” When this is taken to a macro level, as in the case of evening newscasts, the effects are catastrophic on the political discourse. As noted blogger and technologist Ethan Zuckerman pointed out in a talk to the 2010 TED Global conference, network news has dropped foreign coverage from approximately 35 to 40 percent of the broadcast in the 1970s to approximately 12 to 15 percent in the 2000s. In an era of global economic interconnectivity, where Greece’s debt could conceivably pull the EU and US farther into recession, ignoring international events or having an electorate unable to knowledgeably discuss them is dangerous.

However, one doesn’t have to look at the macro level of international coverage to see the consequences of collapsing coverage in news organizations. It came as a shock to many voters here in Texas when the state legislature met this year and stated that draconian cuts would be made to public education funding. This didn’t come as news to those who follow state politics; in fact cuts to education funding were expected over a year in advance. However, in all the coverage leading up to the Novemebr 2010 elections barely any mention was made in traditional news outlets of the impending financial difficulties that school districts across the state would be facing.

Despite the fact that Texas’ revenue shortfall has been built into the budget since 2006-very few newspapers, and almost no TV stations, mentioned that fact in the months leading up to the election. The lack of reporting, especially in small town papers, is often written off as a lack of resources or personnel familiar with the issues. However, in an age where information about issues as disparate as land mines in the Congo and the latest developments in the tabloid soap opera that is Jennifer Aniston’s love life are but a Google search away, there really is no excuse for a lack of context in a news story.

The lack of contextual information in a news story isn’t always because overworked journalists don’t have the time to properly research a story; often times it stems from an editors’ belief that people in one area simply don’t care about what’s happening in another. This myopic attachment to geographical definitions of community leads to beliefs that one neighborhood, say the Museum District, or one suburb, say Humble, is culturally or economically independent of another, say The Heights or Pasadena.

This hyper-localised approach fails to appreciate the fact that humans are now living in mega-regions with issues and concerns-infrastructure repair, access to health care, et. al-that can’t be addressed at the traditional neighborhood or municipal level. Sadly, there are very few reporters who know how to frame their stories at the regional or mega-regional level. Instead of reports on how the First Ward food desert contributed to obesity, or the lack of job opportunities in Fifth Ward impacted crime rates, we get Miya Shay wondering on November 23 if the lowering of a bridge’s load limit will effect a proposed Wal-Mart and the Houston Chronicle offering an up-to-date list of every gun crime in the city.

The catch-all solution for much of the last 15 years was go online and find what you want to read, however even that is coming with it’s own set of problems. As web usage has increased web users have become less trustful of content, to the point that almost anything put on the web is considered either fake or staged. But the problem isn’t fake or staged events, or bogus celebrity social media accounts, the problem is how our all-too-real web presence is shaping our information experience.

A few months ago I met a man who claimed to be from Google and he told me that one of the main problems with the web is too much personalization. Years ago the biggest problem of a digital footprint was that someone could look at your browser history and find out you had a thing for fetish pron. Now our search histories are being used to selectively edit the web to maximize user return. Continuing the example of fetish pron, a search engine could utilize past search histories to make recommendations to sites and those sites can use your past viewing habits to recommend content and ads that they think you’ll like and so on and so on.

Now that level of personalization is fine for some things-pron or shoes or yogurt-but extend it farther: to news and political views and it becomes damaging and dangerous. If, based upon our past reading or viewing habits, we are only recommended news sites that have a specific outlook-if people who visit Mother Jones are only referred to sites like Firedoglake or people who go to the National Review are only recommended sites like Red State-then we are pushing ourselves further into the ideological ghettos that have helped create the partisan gridlock that has come to define our political landscape for much of the last decade.

3 Comments »

  • Things to do in Houston says:

    “Instead of reports on how the First Ward food desert contributed to obesity, or the lack of job opportunities in Fifth Ward impacted crime rates, we get Miya Shay wondering on November 23 if the lowering of a bridge’s load limit will effect a proposed Wal-Mart and the Houston Chronicle offering an up-to-date list of every gun crime in the city.”

    This article totally hits home as I been saying this all along. For example the crime rate issue. The lack of jobs leads desperate people to do desperate things to support their families. Those that are well off and think they are insulated from crime because of their upscale neighborhood has something else coming. This economy will affect everyone directly or indirectly. What kind of homes do you think criminals will target? Why are crimes rising in well-to-do neighborhoods?

    That is just one point on how the media reports these stories.

    Would you like to do a video interview on this topic?

  • Riot.Jane says:

    Thanks, Alex! Appreciate the perspective and examples in this piece. Bravo! Keep writing, and make sure that FPH knows that SOME readers, at least, are interested in things not tied to nightlife/music entertainment. :-)

  • Brian Jensen says:

    Good piece. You hit on many if not most of the issues journalism is facing. Would have been nice to see more local examples.

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