former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Posts Tagged ‘Columbia Journalism Review’

Information deficit disorder jeopardizes our democracy

In Blog on December 20, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Before I took up a career as a public interest lobbyist, I was a journalist.  And in my heart of hearts, I continue to think like a journalist.  Indeed, I have been so emotionally wedded to the profession that I wrote a book, Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis to deal with my own feelings about leaving.  But journalists continue to break my heart, and not because I long to be a reporter again.  It is because my second career reminds me how important – and increasingly how rare – good journalism is.

Daily, I walk the halls of Congress and hope to persuade Members to oppose proposals that will harm the public good, and to advance proposals that will benefit it.

I don’t expect reporters to agree with me.  But what is so discouraging is that mainstream media reporters increasingly are not interested in covering what Congress does, or fails to do, until the eleventh hour before a crucial vote or perhaps after the final days of a congressional session when something important is left undone.

Columbia Journalism Review recently wrote a story about the media’s lack of interest in a strongly bipartisan bill that came within inches of getting approved by Congress before Members left for good at the end of December.

The bill would have strengthened the federal Freedom of Information law, making it easier for all citizens, including journalists, to gain access to information shedding light on the workings of their government.

The point of the CJR story, and a blog by New York Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan, was that the media should have energetically reported on the stalemate for legislation that stood to benefit journalism directly.  After all, a free press thrives when government operates transparently.

That’s true.  But the problem is much bigger.  The dirty little secret in Washington is that by and large the press corps does a terrible job covering 90 percent of what happens in Congress and how it affects average Americans.

I can’t tell you how many meetings public interest lobbyists convene to figure out just what angle of a complicated policy matter might draw the interest, no matter how fleeting, of a distracted press corps.

We know we can’t present anything too complicated, that the details must be written in text that is easily accessible, and brief.

We understand that many reporters want “stories” not memos.

We know they want “sexy” not “wonky” and have to convince editors who have even less patience.

But it gets old, this constant struggle to entertain.  And it wears you down, when big fights over things you care about fail to capture the media’s attention, and thus never really become a part of the public debate.

There are definitely some exceptions.  Reuters reporter Sharon Begley has bravely gone where few journalists have — delving into the wonky world of cost-benefit analysis.  She has written about “the lost pleasure principle”— and how it could weaken pending federal efforts to address the potential health hazards of e-cigarettes and to inform the public about the nutritional value of their restaurant meals.

Washington Post reporters Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold have done a splendid job tracking the new methods deep-pocketed special interests are using to influence public policy.

But consistent careful coverage of federal policymaking is by far the exception, rather than the rule. Media outlets can rise to the occasion, especially when a government failure creates dramatic story lines – patients crippled by defective hip implants, mounting deaths because of tainted products from compounding pharmacies, or environmental disasters.

But they too often lose interest, and don’t follow up to see if our elected officials do enough to address the problem that caused the crisis in the first place.

Reporters change beats.  Newspapers change owners.  There is little sustained attention to federal agencies, or Congressional committees.  Sometimes, as when Sen. Elizabeth Warren takes to the floor to attack a spending bill because it will jeopardize our financial system, the media takes notice.  But Warren had been warning for months about efforts to weaken government regulation of banks. It was only in the final hours of the final days of the 113th Congress that most reporters noticed.  And then, of course, it was too late for the public to weigh in.

Let me be clear.  It is not the media’s job to arouse either outrage or approval.  But if Americans are in the dark about what Congress does or fails to do, they can’t assess the performance of their elected representatives or knowledgably express their views.

Journalism is in transition now, and mainstream media newsrooms have lost thousands of jobs.  Newspapers throughout the country shut down their Washington bureaus, depriving us of seasoned reporters who were covering their local members of Congress.  One can only hope that publishers, editors, and owners of broadcast media outlets will come to realize that journalists cannot shirk the duty they have to the American public – to inform citizens so they can govern themselves.


Starving in a “news desert”

In Blog on September 15, 2014 at 11:15 am

I don’t know what depressed me more.  Columbia Journalism Review’s story on respected media outlets increasingly using contributors, often unpaid, to beef up their online content, or the fact that the journalists who read CJR haven’t bothered to comment on it.  Perhaps they’re too busy struggling to keep their own jobs.

The story’s author emphasized the need for editorial scrutiny of contributors’ content, more fact-checking and policing for any outrageous comments or errors.

But the story also reminded me that we are drowning in opinion and commentary, and starving for fact-based news analysis.  It’s like being surrounded by fast-food joints and unable to find a store selling fruits and vegetables.

Just as there are “food deserts” in America’s inner cities, we seem to be experiencing “news deserts” throughout the country.  There is work for journalists to do, but the people who own media outlets do not appear to value that work, or want to pay for it.

We have public policy debates that cry out for fact-based analysis.

Take, for example, the question whether an increase in the minimum wage increases kill jobs.  In most cases, journalists shrug, and quote an opponent and a proponent offering up different points of view.  But there are ways to find answers to these and other public policy questions.

You look to the experience of locales that have raised the minimum wage.   You seek data about higher wages and their impact on productivity and worker retention. You explore the minimum wage policies of other countries, particularly those that have had a history of high productivity.  You return to the public debate the last time the minimum wage was increased, and determine whether any of the predictions – good or ill – came true.

I was happy to see Dana Milbank use his column to explore some of these questions. But we’re still talking commentary, and a column can easily be discounted by those who disagree.  And even Milbank concedes that the column was not attempting to offer a definitive answer.

What we need is more explanatory journalism. I concede it is difficult to do, takes time and staff resources.  But that’s what differentiates journalism from most online opinion.

It’s been a long time since the Philadelphia Inquirer gave Donald Barlett and Jim Steele the time to explain why the American economy had failed average families.  Their 1991 series, “America: What Went Wrong” generated huge reader response.  In a pre-Internet era, the paper got requests for more than half a million reprints, and the stories were re-published in newspapers throughout the country.  When the series became a book, it landed on the New York Times bestseller list for eight months.

Barlett and Steele still practice journalism, now at Vanity Fair, their substantive pieces competing for readers’ attention along with stories about Jennifer Anniston, Jay Z and James Franco.  When they revisited the topic of their 1991 series in 2012, they collaborated with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.  Their work was published as a book, The Betrayal of the American Dream.

It had an impact, — also becoming a New York Times bestseller — but not the electrifying impact of the first series, which reached hundreds of thousands of average Americans, who valued newspapers because they provided them with information and analysis that made a difference in their lives.

And that’s the real tragedy.  Average citizens, struggling to make sense of the world, get so little assistance from the one profession that could help them better understand it.