I know I harp a lot on the deficiencies of contemporary media. That’s because I worry a lot about the consequences of those deficiencies.
I was reminded of the importance of good journalism the other day, during a discussion in my Media and Public Policy class. The reading assignment was an article by Paul Starr, a highly respected scholar, titled “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption).” Starr began by describing news as a “public good,” noting that newspapers have “been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm system,” and–in response to those who point to the internet as a sufficient replacement–pointed out that a significant proportion of actual news found on the internet originates with and is aggregated from newspaper reporting.
Online there is certainly a great profusion of opinion, but there is little reporting, and still less of it is subject to any rigorous fact-checking or editorial scrutiny.
Starr worries that more and more of American life will “occur in the shadows. We won’t know what we won’t know.”
That last sentence really struck home–in more ways than one. Not only is it true generally, it is especially true that we don’t know what we don’t know about local and state government.
When I was in City Hall, in the late 1970s, there were four full-time reporters covering Indianapolis government–and they had all been there long enough to acquire what we call institutional memory. They knew what questions to ask, and who was responsible for what. Today, the Star has two opinion columnists who write about local governance issues, augmented by occasional reports by actual reporters. If any reporter has an exclusive city “beat,” it isn’t apparent from the coverage.
My class considered a number of City initiatives that received far too little attention, from the 50 year Parking Meter contract, to the Broad Ripple Garage financing, to the “recycling” contract with Covanta. These projects were reported, but without the detail and context that would have permitted citizens to understand and evaluate them.
The same superficiality characterizes coverage of the Governor’s office. Reporting on the Governor’s decision not to apply for an 80 million dollar grant to support preschools was a perfect example: supporters of that decision claimed–among other things– that “the research” shows preschool interventions aren’t valuable; critics countered that this was a deliberate mischaracterization. If reporters investigated the research to see who was telling the truth, I missed it.
As far as reporting on the Statehouse, we finally did learn about Eric Turner–but only after his behavior was so egregious it couldn’t be ignored. More circumspect misconduct goes unreported.
And of course, we don’t know what we don’t know.
We don’t need paper newspapers, but we desperately need journalism.