October 25, 2004

Why is news reporting in the U.S. so lousy?

In spite of the fact that there are a lot of good working journalists out there?

Here's New Yorker reporter and journalism critic Ken Auletta's take:

The problem in journalism is the barrel that holds the apples. That barrel contains incentives for people to do bad journalism. I don't mean cheating and lying. I mean shortcuts that take you away from the truth or from in-depth reporting. I'm not saying the barrel is rotten. I'm saying it's rotting.

Business pressures journalism to get better ratings, better circulation. Those business pressures compel journalists to go for the sensational, the conflict stories, the kind of stories that might command readers' or viewers' or listeners' attention. These stories are the most exciting, not [necessarily] the most important, things that happened yesterday. You get wall-to-wall Michael Jackson or Scott Peterson coverage, or the latest murder sensation scandal stories.

Reporters say, "I'd like to spend three weeks doing an investigation of X," or "I'd like to do a serious exploration of corporate governance issues." But editors, under business pressure from their distant corporate bosses, are saying, "I can't spare you for two or three weeks to do a story like that. I need to maximize your productivity. We've closed overseas bureaus. I've got to get more stories, and I have to get stories that will deal with my declining circulation problems or ratings problems."

And that's an overwhelming problem in journalism that has been worsened by two things: First is the corporatization of the media. These giant companies own journalistic entities but are run by businesspeople who are concerned about stock price or margins or declining ratings. They look at it and say, "How do we apply business logic to this situation?" Well the truth is, for much of its existence, journalism had often been treated differently than other businesses. It was a public trust, but that has diminished. That's worrisome.

The other thing is that technology opens up the Internet or handheld devices so you can receive instant, portable news. You don't need a wire anymore to get it. Increasingly people's attention is diverted, so newspaper circulation and television ratings go down, and the businesspeople behind those channels or networks or newspapers become alarmed. They say, "I've got to start cutting costs." As you cut costs, you often cut news, and you start saying, "Well how do I get those ratings up or circulation up?" They resort to O.J. Simpson or Laci Peterson coverage.

We found this, of all places, on the website for the Public Relations Society of America, who Auletta is speaking to tomorrow. We hope those PR flaks pay at least a little bit of attention to what he has to say.

Posted by Magpie at October 25, 2004 05:27 PM | Media | Technorati links |

It may be true that all these business pressures keep journalists from doing in-depth investigatory reporting, but what has that to do with using the charged language foisted on them by their interviewees/sources. There's no excuse for merely being a conduit for the government's press releases. It doesn't take all that much to question an assertion or assumption. Just being objective and not letting lies pass without question would raise the quality of reporting without much increase in effort.

Posted by: Barbara at October 25, 2004 07:01 PM

Also the business people who really run things don't have a clue or the patience to really let good journalism happen. My few years of reporting taught me that.

Posted by: pops at October 25, 2004 07:57 PM

Business and news don't go together.
When I was wallowing in pity, eating cookies in bed, over the sad state of America last winter I realized that you can't have a fair media when they are relying on corporate sponsors. The business people running the media orgs are more loyal to their sponsors than to the public. This is a big problem.

It would be nice though if jouralists just did a bit of homework and didn't report press briefings as if they are 100% factual.

Posted by: blondesense at October 26, 2004 10:23 AM