Tag Archives: journalism

A Meditation On Media

Is our current media environment to blame for America’s social dysfunction? Two critical questions:

In a large and diverse country, the ability of citizens to participate in the democratic process on the basis of informed decisions is heavily dependent upon the quality, factual accuracy, objectivity and completeness of the information available to them. Do Americans have the ability to select credible information from the incessant competition for eyeballs and clicks?

In a world where the news and entertainment environments are increasingly fragmented, where a media landscape populated with broadly shared information and common cultural references is disappearing, can Americans even conduct a truly public conversation?

Our ability to devise answers to these questions is constrained both by America’s commitment to freedom of speech and press—a commitment set out in and protected by the First Amendment—and a recognition that efforts by government to control what citizens can access online would be more dangerous than the current situation (assuming such control would even be possible in the age of the Internet).

So how did we get here? And far more importantly, how do we get out?

A series of new technologies challenged and ultimately defeated journalistic norms that had developed over the years. Cable television ushered in a virtually unlimited number of channels, upending government rules created for an era in which the federal government owned and auctioned off the limited number of usable broadcast frequencies. The numerous new cable networks made possible by the new technologies were unconstrained by the earlier requirement that their use of the airwaves be consistent with “the public interest.”  The subsequent development of the Internet greatly reduced the costs that had previously prevented the entry of numbers of would-be publishers by dramatically reducing the  investment needed to compete with established newspapers and magazines. Suddenly, virtually anyone with a computer, an internet connection and the ability to generate content could claim to be news sources. Professional journalists found themselves competing for readers’ attention with thousands of webpages, in many cases produced by persons and organizations unacquainted with and unrestrained by professional norms and ethics.

By the time the digital revolution took hold, much of cable news (and virtually all of talk radio before it) had already reverted to the explicit partisanship of earlier days. Fox News may have been the most effective; it shrewdly attacked and undermined the ethic of objectivity by elevating balance as the metric by which journalism was to be judged. The network’s motto, “Fair and balanced” reconceptualized journalism as stenography: suggesting that only “he said, she said” reporting was “fair,” and that failure to devote equivalent air time or column inches to “both sides” equated to media bias. Efforts to achieve “balance” (and thus “fairness”) led to reporters giving equal time to arguments for and against settled science or law; the reality of climate change, for example, was portrayed as an ongoing debate, despite the fact that some 97% of scientists are on one side of that debate and only a few outliers (mostly financed by fossil fuel interests) continue to take an opposing view. Such an approach to reporting leaves readers with the impression that matters of established fact are still unresolved. Balance so conceived does not require objectivity; worse, the pursuit of balance perversely operates to relieve journalists of a vital part of their job: determining, verifying and reporting what is and is not factual, so that the public can make genuinely informed decisions.

The great promise of the Internet was that it would make much more information available, and that Americans’ access to information would no longer be limited by the gatekeeping function of the legacy media. Online, many more stories could be told and they could be told in much more depth. Those undeniable gains, however, have come at a considerable and largely unanticipated cost—notably, the return of an intensely partisan media, wide dissemination of spin, conspiracy theories and outright propaganda, a massive loss of local reporting (especially about local government), the hegemony of new and enormous online platforms (most prominently Google, Facebook and Twitter), growing and corrosive public uncertainty about the accuracy of all news, and the near disappearance of a truly mass media.

It’s one thing to disagree about something that everyone can see. Different people can look at a photo, a piece of art, or a draft of a pending bill, and disagree about its meaning or, in the case of proposed legislation, whether it is a good idea, or would be effective in achieving its purported purpose. In a fragmented media environment that gives disproportionate time and space to assorted “pundits” of varying philosophies and degrees of probity (talking heads are much cheaper than investigative reporters), however, the American people are far too often not seeing the same thing, hearing the same analyses, or occupying the same reality.

Today’s media environment is reminiscent of the time before cellphones when a friend and I agreed to meet for lunch at “the tearoom.” Back then, two department stores in our city had tearooms; I went to one while she went to the other. This made conversation impossible, in much the same way that our current media environment, which places citizens in different “rooms” or conversations, impedes genuine communication.

There is a difference between an audience and a public. Journalism is about more than dissemination of news and other information; it’s about the creation of shared awareness. It’s about occupying the same reality (or eating at the same tearoom).  It’s about enabling and facilitating meaningful communication. As the information environment continues to fracture into smaller and more widely dispersed niches, Americans are losing the common ground upon which public communication and discourse depend. When cities had one or two widely-read newspapers, subscribers were exposed to the same headlines and ledes, even if they didn’t read through the articles. When large numbers of Americans tuned into Walter Cronkite’s newscast or to one of his two network competitors, they heard reports of the same events.  Recent research showing that political polarization increases after local newspapers close shouldn’t surprise us.

If today’s citizens do not share a reasonable amount of accurate information, if different constituencies access different media resources and occupy incommensurate realities, what happens to the concept of a public? To the ideal of informed debate? How do such citizens engage in self-government? If I point to a piece of furniture and say it’s a table, and you insist that, no, it is a chair, how do we decide how to use it? Worse still, if my description of the furniture goes to one audience, and your contrary description goes to another, to whom do we transmit a correction? How do we counter spin, propaganda or even honest mistakes when we have no way of determining who received those original, erroneous messages?

If the ultimate effects of our current information environment are unknown, the intermediate effects are less ambiguous. Citizens who choose different sources for their  news and information tend to choose sources that solidify and confirm their tribal affiliations, reinforce their fears, and make it more difficult to understand the perspectives of those with whom they disagree. Worse, the growth of uncertainty about the validity of what we encounter online has undermined trust in a wide variety of social and governmental institutions. Today, the most effective way to censor something is to sow distrust rather than by suppressing or muzzling the speech itself.

In the November, 2016 election, top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined. The ability of social media platforms to target recipients for information based upon sophisticated analyses of individual preferences threatens the very existence of a genuinely public sphere in which a true marketplace of ideas could operate. We are clearly in uncharted waters.

The obvious question is: what can be done? How can Americans take advantage of the substantial benefits that come with access to virtually unlimited information while avoiding the pitfalls of atomization, inaccuracy and outright propaganda? How can we ensure that enough citizens share enough information to engage in informed debate and  political conversation?

It’s too late to put the genie back in the lamp.

Meanwhile…

Local newspapers keep dying, and that is very, very bad for democracy.

Academic studies confirm some of our worst fears: for example, civic engagement declines when local newspapers disappear. Municipalities that have lost their newspapers pay higher interest rates when they issue bonds. (When no one is “watching the store,” purchasers of municipal bonds worry about the competence and honesty of the local government that is issuing them, and factor in that concern when setting interest rates.)

Recently, both the New York Times and the Guardian have reported on the demise of local papers. The Guardian reported on the loss of Youngstown, Ohio’s newspaper, The Vindicator.

It was in the late 1920s that the Ku Klux Klan regularly began gathering outside the home of William F Maag Jr in Youngstown. Maag owned the Vindicator newspaper, which unlike others in this once prosperous part of Ohio, had been willing to criticize the racist Klansmen.

Men on horseback, clad in white robes and hoods, would burn crosses and flaunt rifles and shotguns, in an attempt at intimidation. It didn’t work. The men of the Maag family would stand outside their home, themselves armed, refusing to be cowed, as the Vindicator continued to expose government officials who were part of the Klan.

That defiance set the tone for decades of investigative, combative reporting from the Vindicator. The daily newspaper relentlessly reported on the mafia, the government, big business and even its own advertisers.

But no more. Soon after celebrating 150 years since its first edition came news that was devastating to many in Youngstown and the wider Mahoning valley. The Vindicator was shutting down at the end of August. For good.

The closure leaves Youngstown as the largest city in the U.S. without a daily newspaper.

According to a study by the University of North Carolina, more than 2,000 US newspapers have closed since 2004, and at least 1,300 communities have completely lost news coverage in the past 15 years. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of working journalists in the U.S. declined 47% between 2008 and 2018.

The Times devoted a special Sunday section to the issue, centering its discussion on the “Dying Gasp of a Local Newspaper,” the weekly Warroad, Minnesota Pioneer.

This, then, was what the desert might look like: No hometown paper to print the obituaries from the Helgeson Funeral Home. No place to chronicle the exploits of the beloved high school hockey teams. No historical record for the little town museum, which had carefully kept the newspaper in boxes going back to 1897.

And what about the next government scandal, the next school funding crisis? Who would be there? Who would tell?

“Is there going to be somebody to hold their feet to the fire?” asked Tim Bjerk, 51, an in-house photographer at Marvin, the big window and door manufacturer that dominates the town.

The problem is wider than reports of newspaper closures suggest, because the death of journalism isn’t always heralded by a shuttered operation. In my city–Indianapolis–the surviving newspaper (we once had three!) was pretty mediocre even in its heyday. When Gannett purchased it, it went from mediocre to worthless. In an effort to wring every possible penny of profit out of the paper (for which Gannett had wildly overpaid), the company cut costs by firing most of the people who produced the content–the reporters. Coverage of city hall and the statehouse is now nearly non-existent–the paper is now a sorry compendium of nostalgic “looking back” features, coverage of new bars and restaurants and sports, with a very occasional investigative report. (When there is an investigative report, it is revisited ad nauseam for days on end.)

People who want to know what school boards are doing can go to Chalkbeat (if they know it exists); people who need to know what the legislature is doing (and who can afford it) can subscribe to one of the for-profit services issuing statehouse newsletters. The general public, however, is left uninformed–and unaware of what they are uninformed about.

A couple of years ago, the textbook I used in my Media and Public Policy class was titled Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?

Americans can still access information about Washington and the world. Information about their local and state governments is another matter entirely. The conduct of state and local government has an immediate and significant effect on citizens– think taxation, policing, education, infrastructure and its maintenance, and the myriad rules that constrain the conduct of our daily lives. Without easily available, objective reporting on the conduct of our elected and appointed officials, they are unaccountable.

At election time, voters are supposed to cast informed ballots. Without local journalism, how can we be informed?

 

Journalism Declines And Scandals Rise

I know I harp a lot on the importance of accurate, credible journalism–especially at the local level, but it is really, really important.

Believe it or not, the ongoing scandals in Virginia, which have embroiled the top three state officeholders, are illustrations of what happens when local coverage goes missing.

As Amanda Marcotte observed in Salon, 

The Virginia scandal is a reflection of a larger trend where politics will be driven more and more by revelations, gotcha moments and resulting scandals. The decline in robust, in-depth journalism, particularly on the local level — coupled with the rise of social media and well-funded partisan opposition research — is creating an atmosphere where political scandals, legitimate or not, will increasingly dominate politics and media.

“You have this degradation of resources in local journalism, which has been going on for a while now,” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, which is currently offering a fellowshipfor local investigative journalism. “You also have this counterpart, which is that it’s easier than before for opposition researchers on all sides to dig up dirt of this sort.”

Benton explained that the decline in local journalism allows politicians in the early stages of their careers, when they are likely to be running for school board or city council,  to escape the scrutiny they would previously have gotten from the relevant local media.

Philip Napoli, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, added that this trend has coincided with another, “the rise of social media and the ways that political candidates are able to communicate with their constituencies directly” and present a version of themselves that’s more to their own liking.

The result is that politicians simply don’t get the vetting they might once have received as they climb the career ladder from smaller offices to statewide and even national offices. Red flags that might have been noticed before a politician reached a position of significant power get overlooked, because local papers simply don’t have the resources to catch them.

The decline in local coverage has coincided with the rise of partisan outlets– not just national networks like Fox and Sinclair, but local talk radio and blogs less concerned with accuracy than with scoring points.  Add to that the gift of the internet– the wealth of materials that vigorous opposition research can now unearth– and you have a recipe for ongoing scandals appearing at extremely “inconvenient” times in politicians’ careers.

In the “old model,” Benton said, people  who wanted to share damning information like sexual assault allegations or past episodes of racist conduct would “go to a reporter and hand him or her the documents or the evidence,” and that reporter would “determine whether the information that’s being handed to them is correct or not.”

 “Now, increasingly you can just post it online and skip that step in the process,” he added. So questions about whether the information is true and legitimately newsworthy don’t get answered in advance.

It appears that the Virginia accusations are all true, although the stories were “broken” by a sleazy partisan web site. But in other cases, innocent parties and organizations sustained real (and sometimes permanent) damage before manufactured allegations could be debunked. Remember when Breitbart accused the nonprofit ACORN of being involved in sex trafficking? Its story was entirely false, but it led to the group’s collapse. A doctored video was used to accuse Planned Parenthood of selling “baby parts” from aborted fetuses and was gleefully spread far and wide. It was later shown to be part of the ongoing, deceptive effort to convince lawmakers to stop funding Planned Parenthood, but pro-life groups continue to cite it as “evidence” of the organization’s evil doings.

In the absence of adequate, reliable reporting, conspiracy theories and partisan invention will fill the void. And citizens won’t know what they can and can’t believe.

The problem is national, but far more prevalent at the local level.

Balancing Act

There may not be any sport in America more popular than media-bashing, and I am a frequent participant. We do live in a confusing, changing and sometimes overwhelming media environment; it sometimes seems we are “marinating” in information. In such an environment, it’s easy to lose sight of the differences between journalism, entertainment and propaganda– to forget what journalists are supposed to do and why it is that what they are supposed to do is so important.

The reason this country’s founders specifically protected journalism in the First Amendment is that we depend upon reporters to tell us what government is doing. If we don’t know what decisions are being made, what actions are being taken and who is taking them, we have no basis upon which to evaluate our elected officials, cast our votes or otherwise participate in self-government.

And that brings me to Fox News.

It’s bad enough that Fox is little more than a propaganda arm of the GOP, but I want to argue that slanting and misrepresenting reality isn’t the worst thing Fox has done. Fox has misrepresented the essential task of journalists. Its slogan, “Fair and Balanced” has led to a widespread understanding of journalism as stenography (he said/she said) and a belief that if a story isn’t “balanced,” it isn’t fair.

Should reporters investigate the claims of all sides of a dispute or controversy? Certainly. But they should do so in order to determine what the facts actually are, so that they can produce an accurate accounting of those facts. We count on reporters to investigate contending claims and perspectives  because we citizens have neither the time nor expertise to do so, and we rely on them to tell us whose claims are verifiable and accurate.

As British reporter Gavin Esler recently argued, how can any news organization “balance” the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion about vaccines or climate change with the crackpot anti-vaccine theories of Andrew Wakefield, or those who claim that climate change is “fake news”?  We don’t “balance” arguments on child protection by giving equal time and space to advocates of pedophilia.

Esler writes that we face a crisis in democracy, “because maintaining quaint ideas of ‘balance’ in a world filled with systematic disinformation is now an existential threat to the country we love, the Britain of the Enlightenment, a place of facts, science and reasoned argument.” That observation applies with equal force to the United States.

The Fox News version of balance plays to the anti-intellectualism that, as Isaac Asimov tellingly observed, has long been a part of American culture, “nourished by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

As David Niose wrote a few years ago in Psychology Today, anti-intellectualism is killing America.

In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president, it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.

Americans desperately need good, responsible journalism. We also need to understand that good journalism strives for accuracy rather than “balance.”

And a little respect for competence and knowledge wouldn’t hurt.

 

Local Journalism Matters–And We’re Losing It

Ever since the 2016 Presidential election, most Americans who follow the news have been fixated on Washington, D.C., and the antics of our increasingly surreal federal government. That’s entirely understandable–but while we’ve been tuning in to the national soap-opera, we have continued to lose track of equally important matters closer to home.

Americans depend upon local news sources–newspapers, broadcast news organizations–to tell us what is happening in our communities. How is local government responding to challenges from potholes to policing? How is the local school board addressing deficits in civics education? Is the Secretary of State purging voter rolls, and if so, is that process being handled properly or with partisan intent?

The measures taken by our state legislatures and City Councils affect us more dramatically and immediately than even Trump’s disasters (assuming he doesn’t blow up the world). Recently, the Shorenstein Center held a symposium exploring the continued loss of local news and the consequences of that loss.

When Setti Warren first took office as mayor of Newton, Massachusetts in 2010, the local paper, the Newton Tab, had an editor, a publisher and two reporters dedicated to covering the mayor’s office.  When he left office after his second term in 2018, the paper had lost its editor; its one remaining reporter covered multiple cities. Also during this time, the Boston Globe eliminated its regional editions, including the Globe West, which covered Newton and other parts of the MetroWest region.

The problem isn’t limited to Newton, Massachusetts.

Nationwide, many local news outlets have shuttered entirely – a March 2018 study published in the Newspaper Research Journal finds that from 2004 to 2015, the U.S. newspaper industry lost over 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers. As Warren suggested, this portends danger — studies show that areas with fewer local news outlets and declining coverage also have lower levels of civic engagement and voter turnout.

Lack of local news can occur without the complete shuttering of a local newspaper; here in Indianapolis, the Star now devotes its (dwindling) column inches primarily to sports and “the bar beat.” Coverage of city hall and the statehouse is sporadic and woefully inadequate.

As I noted in a previous blog, lack of local journalism doesn’t simply frustrate accountability; it even translates into higher costs for taxpayers. “Due diligence” by institutions that purchase municipal bonds  includes investigation of the fiscal probity of the issuer. When no local journalists are covering city hall, buyers demand a higher interest rate to offset the increased risk of the unknown.

At the symposium, Mayor Warren was blunt:

I am gravely concerned about the fact that we don’t have journalists covering city hall, policy decisions, political decisions in an in-depth way, because the citizenry of my own hometown, Newton, Mass., as well as the citizens of the Commonwealth, if they don’t have the facts, they can’t make sound decisions on what directions they want their politicians to go in. So if there’s an absence of good investigative journalism, and there’s a vacuum of having data and facts and reporting, what could get filled into that vacuum is information that is not accurate. Misinformation, disinformation and opinions, not straight reporting. So we are in danger, at the local level, at the state level, and certainly at the national level if we don’t have journalists on the ground doing the interviews, double, triple checking sources. We’re not going to make sound decisions on our policy, whether it’s housing, education, transportation or the ability to protect.

In the absence of good information, a dangerous combination of social media, special interests and people who simply have an ax to grind will fill the void, making it nearly impossible to deliver genuinely responsive governance.

Without legitimate journalism–what has been called the “journalism of verification”–we can’t hold elected or appointed officials accountable.

When no one is watching the store, it’s easy to rob.

When no one is watching government, taxpayers, too, can be robbed. Even under the “best case” scenario, however, if no one is watching, it won’t function properly.