I’ve posted previously about teaching an undergraduate class in Media and Public Policy. I have also posted–frequently–about the loss of real journalism in our current media environment.
Abbreviated version: we are positively marinating in information, but losing the “journalism of verification” required by a democratic society.
When we came to the point in the semester when students share their research with the class, one presentation compared our local newspaper’s coverage of the just-concluded municipal election with that same paper’s coverage of the municipal elections held in 1991. In both years, the only offices on the ballot were the local ones; In Indiana, we elect Mayors and Councilors in “off” years, when neither statewide nor federal candidates are on the ballot. Also in both years, there was no incumbent running.
The numbers are telling.
In 1991, the Indianapolis Star ran 63 articles focused upon general election coverage. This year, it ran 11. In 1991, there were 36 articles devoted to the issues involved in the mayoral and council races; this year, there were 16. In 1991, there were 26 articles explaining the electoral process; this year, 11. Stories devoted solely to the City-County Council races declined from 14 to 5.
Even coverage of election results declined; in 1991, there were 15 articles, this year, 6.
The one category in which there was an increase in coverage? Elections unrelated to Indiana. That category went from 56 stories in 1991 to 101 this year.
The editorial staff layoffs that have characterized newspaper operations in the intervening years have clearly played a part in the decline of local coverage: there were 32 different reporters with bylines covering the 1991 election; this year, there were 14.
Local newspapers aren’t just neglecting to cover City Hall. They aren’t even reporting on the (far easier and accessible) “horse race.”
Which leaves us with some questions: where are citizens supposed to get the credible, verified information we need? How are we supposed to keep local government accountable?