Why News Matters

Regular readers of this blog know that I am semi-obsessed with civic literacy–with the level of civic knowledge necessary to the operation of a representative democracy. And it could hardly have escaped notice that I’ve been pretty hard on what passes for media these days.

The two issues are inextricably entwined. We depend upon verifiable, credible journalism to inform us about our government and to allow us to hold our elected officials accountable.

My belief about the importance of this relationship has recently been confirmed by Pew.

The relative decline of local news — a result of slashed budgets and staffs at newspapers, where the majority of original reporting is still generated — has been an area of grave concern for members of the media as well as everyone who cares about civic health, from policymakers and social scientists to community groups and citizens. A lot of inputs are required to keep communities vibrant, and widely disseminated factual information — a common set of issues and understandings — turns out to be a key ingredient. The Federal Communications Commission spelled out some of these dynamics in its comprehensive 2011 report “Information Needs of Communities.
Academic research backs up these concerns, too. A 2014 study by Lee Shaker of Portland State University, “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement,” finds that at the national and local level there is a positive relationship between newspaper readership and civic engagement as measured by contacting or visiting a public official; buying or boycotting certain products or services because of political or social values; and participating in local groups or civic organizations such as the PTA or neighborhood watch. Likewise, a recent paper by Danny Hayes of George Washington University and Jennifer L. Lawless of American University, “As Local News Goes, So Goes Citizen Engagement: Media, Knowledge and Participation in U.S. House Elections,” notes important implications for democracy: “Citizens exposed to a lower volume of coverage are less able to evaluate their member of Congress, less likely to express opinions about the House candidates in their districts, and less likely to vote.”
The million-dollar question, of course, is: What do we do about this situation?


  1. It again comes down to money. All media, print and electronic, wanted those advertising dollars so badly they compromised media integrity so as to not make advertisers mad if the news didn’t reflect their views. It is at the point that it is not so much what the media tells us, but what they don’t tell us, the stories they don’t cover, the information they don’t present.

    Look at coverage of the relegalization of Marijuana. Note that when last year’s reports of Cannabis causing mental health issues in adolescents was released, a single study that was blown out of proportion, it was carried far and wide. When that study was refuted, only a handful of media bothered reporting it. Same thing when two people died from eating tainted Marijuana edibles in Colorado, the information that it was botulism in the food products that killed those people was suppressed. Can’t risk losing those big pharma and drug treatment center advertising dollars, so to hell with the truth.

    Until we learn that truth is what saves us, regardless of the issue, we will remain in the dark.

  2. When elected officials limit the free flow of communication via their official public internet pages you will only limit the discussion and the public debate. They represent all of us, not just there congressional postal zip code.

  3. A recent short piece in the Star: People find their local news the most trust worthy. They most trust FOX for national news. How did this happen? And what could solve it?

  4. Plato scorned democracy and favoured a wise, learned, and skilled Philosopher King. Athens was a democracy that Plato saw as inadequate to the task because of a lack of knowledge. The Aristotelian middle position would be a democracy informed by wisdom, learning, and skill. Government would be of the people, for the people and by the people, but the people would be bright and just. Maybe someday we will get there, but at this point we are going in a very politically unhealthy direction.

  5. Perhaps breaking the problem down into some pieces would be instructive.

    Consider the old 2X2 matrix. “News”, ” pseudo news” on one axis, “push”, “pull” on the other (“push” being news published and then distributed and “pull” being news like on the Internet that each customer pursues.

    In the grand scheme of things what’s broken is not journalism but the publishing business model. In the old days pushed print news was a very profitable business because newspaper advertising was a very effective income generator. Today it’s just hard to generate that income. Probably the best, though not very good, is pulled pseudo news that allows targeted advertising. The customer comes to get what she wants to hear and much is known about her individually so her eyes are delivered to ads for what she’s most likely to buy.

    Print publishers have been way too slow in figuring out a new business model that works for them and for democracy.

    What seems fundamental is the old headline, big picture, details model of reporting. We are swamped with news. We each have to prioritize how we absorb it. We need to see headlines to choose what to invest more time in, but we need to be way smarter than we are at choosing what we need to invest time in to be responsible not merely entertained. I see no hope for that happening while we’re comfortable. While the news is elsewhere.

    When we get to being the news rather than remote observers global experience suggests that pulled news will prevail from a customer perspective.

    But, we need to figure out how to pay for it. Our targeted eyes are only valuable when we can be sold what brand marketing thrives on. Fashion, or fad. We need to stop that if we are to have a viable home planet.

    We need a way to buy and pay for pulled news. We need to get rid of brand marketing.

    Ideas anyone?

  6. An apropos WaPo article built around the upcoming Merchants of Doubt movie.


    One of the topics in it is the “demand” side for pseudoscience and pseudo news as compared to the more often discussed supply side. Of course both are necessary for a market to exist.

    “The film ends by telling the story of Bob Inglis, the conservative former South Carolina congressman who changed his mind about global warming, accepted that it was real, and — for this reason among others — was voted out of office in the Tea Party sweep of 2010. Inglis now makes it his job to talk to conservatives in their own language about climate change, and to try to move them — meaning he’s perhaps closer than anyone to the sources of resistance.”

    “So it’s appropriate to end with a quotation from him in the film, showing just how powerful the “demand” side remains:”

    “It’s not just a head thing, this is very much a heart issue. … Many conservatives I think see action on climate change as really an attack on a way of life. The reason that we need the science to be wrong is otherwise, we realize that we need to change. That’s really a hard pill to swallow — that the whole way I’ve created my life is wrong, you’re saying? That I shouldn’t have this house in the suburbs, that I shouldn’t be driving this car. … And you’re not going to tell me to live the way that you want to live. And along come some people with sowing some doubt, and it’s pretty effective, because I’m looking for that answer. I want it to be that the science is not real.”

  7. I’m thinking the average middle-age person on the street corner has the attention span of a flea, was nurtured by a steady diet of Sesame Street, and expects all news to be delivered in short flashy bytes. Hence, the growth of Gannett who gives the average person exactly what he/she is accustomed as in news from Hollywood, updates on faux reality television shows, and local news limited to life styles of the regional celebrity athletes or politicians, the best places to dine for over $100 per person, and the society events of locals dressed in their Mid West finery.

  8. It used to be that delivering the news was considered to be the ethical responsibility of journalists, and it wasn’t a for profit enterprise. It is just one more thing that should never have been up for sale, on a par with schools, healthcare and prisons. Hunger games circuses in the form of entertainment have coarsened our culture and blurred the line between amusements and serious business. We are encouraged to win at all costs by the likes of Donald Trump. The oligarchy is sustained by confusion, simple-minded analysis, the erosion of education, the marginalization of the intelligencia, and promotion of a political culture that is inhospitable to ethical honest people. Is it any wonder that the truth about so many things gets buried under a mound of trash?

  9. As regards our elected officials:

    Its Saturday (late Afternoon) 17:30 hours and I’m
    enjoying my Bombay Sapphire on the rocks with
    Blue Cheese Stuffed Olives and my Wife (in the other
    room) is reviewing the finest government this nation
    has ever seen …

    President Jed Bartlett and his tenure in the West Wing.

  10. It is not just the decline of local news. It is what is getting defined as “news” these days. Can you imagine Walter Cronchite delivering some of the People Magazine type stories that pass as “news”? We have started watching the BBC to try to find out what is really going on in the world.

  11. The fourth estate has failed us miserably because greed and money hungry CEOs run the business now, not journalists. Our country is doomed. Doomed I tell you.

    The rising stars that are in their 30s don’t give a fig about what’s really important. They want to be entertained. We’re screwed.

    I’m just glad that I’m in my mid-50s and won’t be around much longer than a few more decades to see the decline. I think I’ll start happy hour/St. Patrick’s Day/etc early. You know because everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Cheers! 🙁

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