former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Sullivan’

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.

Advertisements

Five Things Jeff Bezos Can Do to Upgrade The Post and Win Over Its Readers

In Blog on August 7, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Dear Mr. Bezos,

Since you’ve paid cash ($250 million) to buy The Washington Post, I’m assuming that you can afford to spend a bit more to enhance your property. Think of these suggestions as adding a new wing to your DC pied-à-terre. I believe they will actually make The Post more attractive to its readers, and since you say you are all about pleasing the customer, they might appeal to you.

Restore The Post’s ombudsman. Last  April, The Post discontinued its ombudsman position. That was a short-sighted move.  You can reverse this decision.  The Post needs an independent and wise journalist to look over its shoulder and assess its performance. An ombudsman is the paper’s conscience and its customer service rep, the person who can respond to reader concerns and complaints in a thoughtful, meaningful way. And if you do take this suggestion, hire someone feisty and brave, like The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan.

Hire more copy editors. As a reporter, I always resented editors for getting in my way. They do, and they should.  The good ones ask the right questions, guard the grammar, spot errors, and help shape stories. After waves of buyouts, you can see The Post has suffered from an editor shortage. Stories often are pointlessly long, lack focus, and leave readers frustrated for lack of basic information. Don’t take my word for it.  Read the corrections page each day, and the “reader’s comments page” on Saturday.

Beef up the Health-Science section. The Post Health section used to be plump with solid health journalism. Now it is thinner and a mishmash of health and science news, often snatched from wire services. Surely, an aging population of wealthy readers is pretty obsessed with health news.  Give them better, more comprehensive coverage from health journalists.  If you don’t want to staff up, give more in-depth assignments to free-lancers. Medical Mysteries is one feature that is a winner for the section, but it needs more heft.

Read the rest of this entry »

Readers Lose As Washington Post Cuts Ombudsman

In Blog on April 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

On March 2, The Washington Post confirmed what had been rumored for weeks. After a 43-year run, the paper was eliminating its ombudsman, trading in the independent critic of the Post’s journalism practices for an in-house “reader representative.”

Patrick Pexton, The Post’s outgoing ombudsman, had implied money problems were driving the change. The Post’s management denied that money was a factor, explaining rather that different times required different measures. They contended that the rise of the Internet, the proliferation of online media critics, and the ability of readers to comment directly about stories or to email reporters ensured enough accountability. So The Post no longer needed an independent, presumably thoughtful, journalist, to publicly assess its performance. Instead, what was really important was responding to individual complaints from readers.

While I have liked Pexton’s work in the past, I criticized him recently for heaping unnecessary praise on reporters for simply doing their jobs, and I must say this explanation for the elimination of the ombud is also just plain silly. The fact that readers can post comments on Post stories or contact Post reporters electronically in no way means that the paper no longer needs an independent assessor of how it measures up to journalism’s highest standards. Outside media commentators lack the ability to get the attention of the paper’s editors, or have the power to defend the paper from accusations of bias or unfairness the way an independent ombudsman can.

Read the rest of this entry »