Tag Archives: news

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?


How to do Local

One of the ways in which newspapers are responding to the challenges of the internet age is by concentrating on coverage of their own communities. Dubbed “localism” or sometimes “hyperlocalism,” the approach makes a lot of sense: let readers get their national and international news from the New York Times, the Guardian, and other sources easily accessed through the web, and concentrate on providing information about one’s own home town.

The Indianapolis Star –like many other papers–has announced that it will concentrate on local coverage, “stories you can’t get elsewhere.”

This approach will only work, however, if the newspaper does actual reporting. Local coverage is not simply printing press releases sent in by new restaurants that are opening. It isn’t just “galleries” of local homes and their decor. It certainly isn’t the same links to stories about the Super Bowl and how to lose weight that appear on the newspaper’s website for a week.

Earlier this year, I discontinued subscribing to the Star. After 50 years. What would make me change that decision, and re-subscribe, would be genuine local coverage: school board meetings. Library board decisions. Real, in-depth coverage of the Mayor and City Council.

During the last year, the Ballard Administration and its partisans on the City-County Council engaged in deal-making that may or may not have been improper. The Star hasn’t covered most of it. Even when they have, the coverage has been superficial–“he said, she said, I guess that’s all, folks.” The IBJ recently reported that the city was building a parking garage in Broad Ripple, paying for its construction with our tax dollars and then handing it over to a developer who formerly worked for the Mayor. The developer will be entitled to all the profits. I’d like to know how the administration justifies this transaction, but I saw no reporting about it at all in the Star. (Maybe I missed it, but if so, it certainly wasn’t highlighted.)

I saw little detail about the fifty-year parking meter deal–certainly not the analysis provided by local blogger Paul Ogden or regional urban expert the Urbanophile.  Even when the paper did report on the Litebox fiasco, there was little reporting on the process that led the city to ignore huge red flags and hype an obvious con man.

These are just the deals we know about; in the absence of real reporting, how much more do we know nothing about?

The bottom line is that concentrating on local coverage can indeed save local news media–but it can’t save them the bother or expense of hiring and training real reporters. Giving us genuine news we can use to evaluate local institutions and politicians requires investigative reporting by trained journalists.

Going back to the days when small-town newspapers printed the school cafeteria menus won’t cut it.

The Center Will Not Hold

I attended a conference on Media Reform last weekend, and came back pretty depressed. Although there were several thousand people in attendance who were determined to save journalism–not necessarily newspapers, or broadcast news, but the essential watchdog function that led our Founders to give Constitutional status to the press–it’s abundantly clear that right now, no one has a clue how to provide the public with the news democratic societies require.

In place of widely-read, credible news media serving the general public, we have “niche news” tailored to our personal prejudices and politics. Thanks to consolidation and corporate ownership focused on the bottom line to the exclusion of journalism’s social mission, we have more “human interest” and “self-help” stories and less real news; more “opinion” and less fact-checking. That we have ever-more dysfunctional government is not a coincidence.

In fact, America seems to be actively dismantling the institutions that create unum from our pluribus: those places in our society that knit individuals into a public.

I’ve written here often about our diminished constitutional literacy, and the likely consequences of that in a diverse country that depends for its very identity upon a common understanding of our form of government.

Add to that constitutional illiteracy the utterly ferocious attacks on public education we are experiencing. Whatever the defects in our public schools, they are and have been the institution that–as Benjamin Barber eloquently put it–is constitutive of a public. When we privatize education, we treat it as if it is a consumer good–skills we are “buying” so that our children can compete economically. But public education should be more than that; it should respect our diverse private identities while providing a common social umbrella.

When we no longer know our common history or political structure, when we no longer meet each other in public schools, when each of us gets our news from different sources operating out of different political and social realities, what will Americans have in common? What will make us a public?