The State of Journalism

Newspaper and media experts have spent the last couple of decades like navel-gazing philosophers – analyzing, explaining, charting and graphing the decline of old-fashioned journalism. They have documented the primary culprits for what ails traditional journalism such as newspapers and broadcast news: changing audience reading and viewing habits, as well as consumers plugging into the Internet and other high-tech new media to obtain information and to communicate. These phenomena led to the slow collapse of the advertising-supported model of traditional journalism as ad dollars shifted to the Internet and other platforms, taking circulation with them. The latest numbers: daily newspaper circulation declined 8.7 percent in the six months ending March 31 while Sunday circulation was down 6.5 percent.

But another factor is in play, one that can be attributed to the basic supply-and-demand functions college students learn in introductory economics. Owners and managers of traditional media should take a hard look at their “product,” as news has come to be called, to discern if it is supplying not only what the consumers demand, but what they need. I contend that beyond fulfilling the public’s lust for the banal – celebrity, sports and sensational crimes – it is not.

The immense popularity of the late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which had a first printing of just 4,000 copies in 1980 but has sold nearly 2 million since then, provides a clue for traditional media owners.  The appeal of Zinn’s tome was not so much in the accuracy of his rendition of history, which some critics have questioned. Rather, it was in the perspective: history viewed from the bottom up, through the experiences of the victimized minorities, women and laborers who felt the effects of  rules and events brought about by history officialdom.

“To describe it as a revisionist account is to risk understatement,” wrote Michael Powell of the book in Zinn’s January 27, 2010 New York Times obituary. “A conventional historical account held no allure; he concentrated on what he saw as the genocidal depredations of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt and the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln. He also shined an insistent light on the revolutionary struggles of impoverished farmers, feminists, laborers and resisters of slavery and war.”

A similar “light” – or demand – exists for news, if only the providers of traditional reportage would become a bit less traditional and alter their content – as radio, and then television, forced them to do in the previous century when they shifted focus from immediacy to concentrate on context, background and explanation. Now, facing a challenge from the Internet,  newspaper providers need to look at their content’s relevance anew, and redefine how they intend to serve their audience.

We still get reportings of illegal government wiretapping of citizens’ cell phones, of torture of federal prisoners during terrorist-related  interrogation, of corporate foul-ups such as massive oil spills or dangerous automobiles. Still, the media have largely abandoned the ballyhooed watchdog role in favor of what  media analysts Clarice N. Olien, George A. Donohue and Phillip J. Tichenor have identified as a guard dog role on behalf of “groups having the power and influence to create and command their own security systems.”

The press for the most part engages in – indeed, encourages – a symbiotic relationship with government and business in a routinized method of reporting that, in the name of credibility, objectivity and balance, relies heavily on official sources and official agendas. More and more, reporting agendas are set not by the public but by government officials and policy makers through press conferences, photo-ops, speeches and scheduled meetings – all designed to structure the news and to define its importance, scope and range in the interests of the news-makers and policy-setters. And more and more the media accept these agendas, which, more accurately, are topical boundaries. And this is where much of the major problem of today’s press lies.

As former Washington Post assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian argued in his book The Media Monopoly, agenda-setting – “deciding which news to pursue in depth and which to drop quickly” – is a normal and necessary part of newsgathering. But it also “is the most important single step in journalism.”

In a democracy, media and news organizations are the primary source of information on which citizens and policymakers rely to keep abreast of national and international economic, political and social events that affect each of them. So the selection of stories offered to the public, and how those stories are reported and presented, is important.  

During last year’s G-20 summit in Pittsburgh – the first time such a gathering had been held in a non-capital city – I analyzed summit coverage by the local and national press to ascertain how the agendas of the media compared to the official agendas of the participating governments and to those of the thousands of activists and protesters who marched, demonstrated and rioted during the summit. I also tracked what sort of sources the newspapers used. Source selection plays a key role in story credibility. Media scholars have demonstrated that editors and reporters most often call on official sources, such as government officials and insiders, not only for such practical reasons as their availability but because of the belief they have something important to say and what they say is factual. But in this zeal for credibility, the press has lost its connection to those outside of officialdom it is supposed to represent – its audience.

My analysis of the coverage by the three national newspapers of the Pittsburgh summit – The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today – clearly  documented that official sources dominated newspaper coverage of summit events, from the doings of government officials behind closed doors to the cultural and social functions and the staged marches and protests on the streets. Designated spokespeople of agencies and organizations, including those representing protest or dissent groups; government representatives; and law enforcement officials accounted for 71 percent of all sources of the summit coverage in the three national newspapers.  Non-official sources – folks on the street, business employees, neighborhood residents – comprised 24 percent. The remainder of the sources – newspaper columnists primarily, using themselves or each other as sources – made up the other 5 percent.

But here is the important percentage. Dissent sources – whether official protest group spokespeople or demonstrators interviewed at random during the numerous marches and occasional unplanned flare-ups that led to more than 200 arrests – accounted  for only 12 percent of the newspapers’ sources. And most of these sources’ comments came during coverage of marches, protest activities or riots – stories that were infrequent, comprising only 13 percent of all three newspapers’ stories on the summit, stories that were buried inside and that were based primarily on information obtained from government and police officials.

This compared to 53 percent on economic subjects – the official agenda of the summit – of the three national newspapers’ total stories on the summit. The remaining categories were environmental and other subjects, editorials and commentary. The subjects of the latter category – opinion pieces by academic and policy experts and newspaper columnists – were primarily on economic subjects; so the newspapers’ agendas were strongly allied with the official agendas of the participating governments. This is not earth-shattering; it was an economic summit after all. But thousands of other folks showed up for this event with agendas that they, at least, viewed as equally important – clean air, pursuit of peace, a political system beholden to financial and corporate interests, and freedom of speech and assembly.

These findings do affirm what media critics have contended about the modern media for some time – that news, in the words of Olien, Donohue and Tichenor, “is primarily about those at or near the top of the power hierarchies and those low in the hierarchies who threaten the top … Media organizations and news gathering routines reinforce this power orientation, through selection of sources that are available, efficient, and authoritative.”

One other finding of interest in my analysis was the national newspapers’ treatment of a ruling in federal court during the summit that gave police free rein to arrest and intimidate protesters and spectators alike – a story covered by only one national  newspaper, the Times, in an inside brief. The ruling, handed down by U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster, came early in the week of the summit after police, without benefit of a warrant or show of probable cause, detained an out-of-state bus that had been converted to a kitchen to serve food during the protests. Members of the activist group Seeds of Peace were stopped for loitering while walking to a residence where they were guests, and the bus was pulled over and held for a couple of hours just 20 yards from its destination, awaiting a city inspection team after police had ordered it moved. The ruling also followed police interference with two groups that had been given legal permits to hold pre-summit marches.

The Times’ September 23 item on the judge’s decision reported he found no “‘irreparable harm’ by three separate police searches last weekend of members of the Seeds of Peace, a group that provides medical care and food to protest groups. Judge Lancaster also said he  would not stop the city from conducting further searches or detaining members of the group or of a larger group, the Three Rivers Climate Convergence, ‘particularly given the fact that the heads of state of 19 countries and the European Union will be in Pittsburgh this week.’”

The account omitted the most troubling aspect of the judge’s ruling, as reported by the local Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in which the judge concluded “we are not here to determine if constitutional violations have occurred.”

This omission is akin to the philosophical parable that questions whether a falling tree makes any noise if there is nobody in the forest to hear it. This judge’s setting aside of constitutional issues makes a silent tumbling tree of the First and Fourth Amendments so far as the national audience is concerned. The failure of the national press to question that incredible pronouncement goes beyond mere news judgment, to a matter of press responsibility. And it was more evidence of an unchallenging, if not downright cozy, relationship of the press to those it is supposed to cover in the tradition of an independent Fourth Estate.

As for the unofficial and dissident sources, they were left largely on their own, to Internet blogs and to the alternative press for more thorough, or balanced, reporting. Indeed, the coverage of Pittsburgh’s City Paper – a free weekly popular among the city’s cultural, college and younger crowd – was starkly different not only from the national press but also from the two Pittsburgh dailies in terms of framing and sourcing.

Its front-page color photos of mounted and helmeted gun-toting police, a gas-mask-wearing observer, and marching monks focused on the police-state regime the city had become during the summit and the national press largely ignored. This included vehicle traffic channeled away from downtown, protesters corralled and controlled with gas and loud audio devices, and the requirement for permits to march and gather in the streets. The story inside told of the protests and arrests from the viewpoint of those detained and those observing, using official sources for some information but also as counterpoint information contradicted by the primary sources of the reportage – those affected by and participating in the activities. The City Paper coverage offered a remarkably different take in terms of agenda and framing of the event than that of the daily – especially national – press.

It was almost Zinn-like.

And there is the rub. The readership that the traditional press needs to reach, the demand that it is failing to supply, is slipping away to alternative media that include weekly newspapers and Internet blogs. These are the forums where common citizens gather, discuss the agendas the governments and policy-makers set and big media reports. And this is occurring at a time when a vibrant and challenging daily press is vital – the nation is fighting two wars, it remains mired in economic recession. Folks are worried about their jobs, homes and retirements; about immigration policies on the southern border; about climate change that is affecting the future of the planet – all overseen by a government comprising factions at war with each other and reported by a media perceived as more in league with officialdom than with the citizens.

Newspapers and media companies seeking to broaden, or reclaim, their franchise  need to connect with, rather than disconnect from, the citizens who comprise the populist mood of the nation. Of course they must continue reporting the agendas and the routine information they cover through official channels; but they also need to expand the coverage to include stories of the people touched by the decisions and reportage. The reporters should take off their neckties and take to the streets.

They should go to public health clinics and wait in line along with the patients to report first-hand on the conditions and treatment doled out to citizens in those venues. They should emulate the method of Barbara Ehrenreich, take minimum-wage jobs and report on the working conditions and treatment of employees in the nation’s restaurants and department stores. They should rent an apartment in the ghetto and write about living conditions there.

This is the kind of reporting that the muckraking journalists did back in the early days of the twentieth century. They went into the meat-packing plants, into the insane asylums, behind the scenes of county and state government, during the populist movements of the Progressive era, to report on abuse, graft and fraud – before the wealthy moguls, the likes of Morgan and Rockefeller, bought out the muckraking magazines to, as Bagdikian suggested, shut off that reporting valve.

A similar phenomenon of wealth-controlled information is in place today. A small number of multi-company conglomerates own most of this nation’s print and broadcast media and thus control the gates of information. And the few remaining independent media voices rely on college-educated, middle-class reporters and correspondents who live and barbecue out in the suburbs to report on news agendas that have been narrowed to official government proclamations and events, and sports and celebrity news. The result, to echo the findings of the Kerner Commission’s 1968 investigation of press coverage of ghetto riots, is a perception by the reading and viewing public at large that media organizations are instruments of the predominant (white) power structure – a finding that remains valid today about a reporting structure that leaves a whole lot of citizens without a powerful media voice. The consequences of this nearly century-long shift in agendas and story framing away from the masses and to the power brokers all are negative: stepped up dissident and sometimes violent protest activity because loud voices can more easily command media and government attention; lopsided, unbalanced reporting on issues that need probing, contextual  and behind-the-scene story-telling; decreased credibility due, ironically, to reporting methods designed to ensure credibility; and, ultimately, a democracy that suffers because of a citizenry that has become disconnected from its elected officials and unelected guard dogs.

Steve Hallock, a former longtime newspaper writer and editor, is director of graduate studies for the School of Communication at Point Park University in Pittsburgh and is author most recently of “Reporters Who Made History: Great American Journalists on the Issues and Crises of the Late 20th Century.”

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