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?

Pogo Was Right

The long-discontinued cartoon Pogo was famous for one particular insight that Pogo– an amiable, philosophical opossum–shared with his friend Albert the Alligator: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

No kidding.

Is the American public ill-served by a media that has abandoned journalism for propaganda and celebrity? Whose fault is that?

Who clicks on the links about missing blonds in Aruba or Kim Kardashian’s latest selfies while ignoring well-sourced, comprehensive news reports? Who tunes in to talk radio and Faux News in order to have urban legends repeated and prejudices reinforced? America’s media is a business; it responds to the market and gives us what we demonstrably want–entertainment, not credible, verifiable information.

Are the interests of voters and citizens alike ignored by the squabbling fools in Congress? Who elected them?

And whose apathy will re-elect most of them, even after ongoing demonstrations of their inability to compromise, negotiate or do the public’s business. Even after it becomes embarrassingly clear that many of them have zero understanding of the Constitution they’ve sworn to uphold. Even after it becomes abundantly clear that they are doing the bidding of their donors rather than concerning themselves with the interests of their constituents.

Yep. We have met the enemy, and it is most definitely us.


Watchdog? What Watchdog?

A recent Gallup poll finds that public confidence in the media is at an all-time low. Interestingly, confidence was lowest among those who reported following the news most closely. In other words, the people who arguably know the most are the people most skeptical of what they are–and are not–being told.

In my Media and Public Policy class last Wednesday, students voiced their dismay over the Indianapolis Star, which has abandoned any pretense of investigative reporting on city and state government. If someone brings an issue to the attention of the paper, they may run it, but any visible effort to actually monitor local government, or to act as the eyes and ears of the voters, is long gone.

Local television news is equally superficial, although in fairness, it is often better than the current Star. Historically, the local channels have taken their cues from print media; in the absence of anything resembling meaningful local news from newspapers, they are floundering.

So we have lots of sports coverage. And at the Star, which has continued to “downsize” its investigative reporting capacity, a new reporter for the all-important “beer and entertainment beat.”

The national networks aren’t appreciably better . In fact, their credibility may be worse.

Politifact has a new rating system, which is using scorecards to track the accuracy–or lack thereof–of network pundits and “on-air personalities.”

Right now, you can look at the NBC/MSNBC file and see how that network’s pundits and on-air talent stand. For instance, 46 percent of the claims made by NBC and MSNBC pundits and on-air personalities have been rated Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire.

At FOX and Fox News Channel, that same number is 60 percent. At CNN, it’s 18 percent.

(Forgive the snark, but I can’t help attributing CNN’s better rating to the fact that it provides less news. I mean, how much misdirection can you work into weeks spent tracking a missing plane?)

So–we can’t rely on the veracity of the national news networks, and there is no local general interest journalism left.

No wonder no one trusts anyone anymore.


Balancing Act

Leave it to the British to accurately diagnose what is terribly wrong with the American media.

It’s the mindless elevation of “balance” over accuracy. Somewhere along the line, members of the American news media (I’m hesitant to call them journalists) decided that “he said, she said” was reporting. It isn’t. It’s stenography.

This emphasis on “balance” at the expense of accuracy and the old-style journalism of verification is abetted by the media’s genuine bias, which is neither conservative nor liberal  but rather a bias for conflict. If it bleeds, it leads.

So we get “balanced” coverage of things like climate change.  More than 99% of climate scientists agree that the earth is warming, but our intrepid media will find that one crank who insists otherwise, and give us a “balanced” story by quoting “both sides.” Left unreported is the fact that the science is overwhelmingly on one “side” and the “debate” is virtually non-existent.

Or we get political coverage that has been dubbed “false equivalence.” There’s a reason for that. Over the past couple of decades, the right wing has employed a brilliant strategy: labeling the media “liberal.” (Has a factual report cast you in an unfavorable light? Scream immediately about the liberal, “lame stream” media.)  In response, most traditional media outlets have been cowed into reporting a phony equivalence whenever possible, a “plague on both your houses” approach that often distorts the reality of a situation and even more often encourages lazy reporting. How much easier it is to quote a Republican and a Democrat and then go home–without ever bothering to tell the audience who is telling the truth.

No wonder so many people don’t trust the media. Very few are still trustworthy.


Just the Facts

As regular readers of this blog know, I tend to harp a lot on the inadequacies of the media and the importance of accurate and complete information. My (frequently unarticulated) assumption is that if people agree about the facts of a matter, they are more likely to agree upon what those facts mean. So facts matter. A lot.

Case in point: yesterday, I shared my frustration about Fox News and its incessant drumbeat about a ‘Benghazi scandal’ the details of which the network neglects to specify. One of the commenters purported to fill in the blanks by asserting that the administration had refused to deploy troops that were within range and might have saved lives.

That would indeed be scandalous, if true. But as most other media outlets have reported, every military official in a position to know has emphatically denied the allegation. (Former Secretary of Defense Gates characterized the belief that the nearest troops could have gotten to Benghazi in time to defend the embassy as based upon “a cartoonish understanding” of military operations.) Unless every military expert from Gates on down is part of a conspiracy to protect the administration, the facts do not support the single concrete accusation being made.

I’ve been mulling over the role fact-finding plays in our political debates, because I’ve been reading a book that has been getting a lot of attention lately, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt’s scholarship is focused upon moral psychology, and the book is an excellent and very accessible exploration of evolutionary morality and the operation of culture on innate human tendencies.

One of the innate tendencies Haidt identifies is a belief in proportionality; that is, a belief that reward should be based upon contribution. Most of us have an innate “fairness” monitor that tells us that the member of the tribe who works hard should be entitled to a greater share of communal goods produced than the slacker.

I think both conservatives and liberals agree with this moral premise. Their dispute is with application—that is, with the facts. For example, if you believe that people are poor because they are lazy and conniving—that is, slackers, you will resent their dependence on public assistance. If you discover that the great majority of poor people work 40 or more hours a week at jobs that simply do not pay enough to allow them to get by, and that those who are “gaming the system” are a very small percentage, you are less likely to feel that you’ve been taken advantage of and more likely to support policies aimed at making the working poor self-sufficient.

There are lots of other examples, but the basic point is: facts matter. Conservatives and liberals (terms that have lost much clarity in any event) share many more moral premises than the pundits and pontificators assume.

What we increasingly do not share is accurate and complete information–and a uniformly credible media.