Journalism schools train generalists to interview sources, review documents, and craft stories, and editors assign reporters to cover a wide range of events. But generalist reporting has practical limits … and political consequences. (More)

Informing the News, Part II: The Limits of Generalist Reporting

This week Morning Feature considers Thomas Patterson’s new book Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism. Yesterday we began with how the Watergate Scandal eroded the source-interview model that was the bedrock of political journalism, and spawned the ‘He Said, She Said’ model we see today. Today we see the limits of ‘He Said, She Said’ journalism, and why generalist reporters are hamstrung by asymmetrical knowledge. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with what kind of news audiences really want, and how our media might better offer it.

Thomas Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of several other books on politics and the media, including Out of Order, awarded the American Political Science Association’s 2002 Doris Graber Award, and The Unseeing Eye, named one of the fifty most influential books of the past half century in the field of public opinion by the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

“‘Indexed’ implicitly to the range and dynamics of governmental debate”

In 1990, communications and political science professor Lance Bennett surveyed four years of New York Times coverage of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua and reached a surprising conclusion:

[N]ews is ‘indexed implicitly to the range and dynamics of governmental debate, but has little relation to expressed public opinion.

Subsequent work has strengthened Dr. Bennett’s thesis, as journalism and political science professor Regina Lawrence explains at Oxford Bibliographies:

At its core, the indexing hypothesis predicts that news content on political and public policy issues will generally follow the parameters of elite debate: when political elites (such as the White House and congressional leaders) are in general agreement on an issue, news coverage of that issue will tend to reflect that consensus; when political elites disagree, news coverage will fall more or less within the contours of their disagreement. Put differently, those issues and views that are subject to high-level political debate are most likely to receive news attention that is wide-ranging; issues not subject to debate receive less critical attention. […] Views not voiced within current elite debate will thus tend to be marginalized in news as well, particularly in times of elite consensus, yet topics treated to little critical news coverage in one time period may be treated to more expansive and critical coverage in others.

In short, most public policy news reflects neither an evidence-based analysis of problems and solutions nor the interests and opinions of We the People. Instead, as we saw yesterday, reporters rely on the ‘He Said, She Said’ model. When an elected official or other civic leader says or does something newsworthy, reporters “go shopping” for an elected official or civic leader from “the other side.”

$340,000 or $70 Million?

Consider the media reporting of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s claim that Christie administration officials said her request for Hurricane Sandy relief money was being withheld until her city council approved a development project backed by Christie former aides. Mayor Zimmer alleged specific facts about the amount of Sandy relief she had requested, the amount received thus far, and her meetings with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Richard Constable, Gov. Christie’s community affairs commissioner.

On Monday, CNN interviewed former Mississippi Governor and Christie mentor Haley Barbour, who offered this defense:

No, I’ll tell you what it gives me concern about, that the news media is willing to leap at any farfetched story with the basis in fact is unbelievable. This is a lady mayor who asked for $127 million of hazard mitigation money from the governor to give that to her from the federal money. When the state was only receiving in its entirety $300 million.

It is absurd to think that one town would get well more than a third of the total amount of money. This town that was getting punished got over $70 million in hurricane relief

Setting aside Barbour’s sexism, why should we assume he knows anything about the disbursement of Hurricane Sandy relief funds? The $70 million figure he cited came from Gov. Christie’s office, but most of that came directly from federal programs over which Gov. Christie’s office had no control. While Business Insider’s Josh Barro burrowed into Hoboken’s specific relief requests and grants, mainstream outlets like CBS, CNN, and the Washington Post frame the story as Democrats trying to kneecap Gov. Christie’s possible 2016 presidential bid.

The adversarial process

The ‘He Said, She Said’ model of public policy reporting appears similar to the adversarial process we use in courtrooms. The theory is that each side will prepare and present the best available evidence and arguments, and the finder of fact (judge or jury, or news readers and viewers) can then weigh them and decide.

When that works in court – and it doesn’t always work – it works because we have and judges apply rules of evidence. Witnesses are under oath and subject to perjury charges if they intentionally misstate facts. Scientific experts must be vetted and their theories (and motivations, if suspect) presented and explained. And the lawyers and other parties can’t simply shout over each other, as so often happens on cable news panels. A courtroom trial is more often tedious than entertaining.

But the court budget doesn’t hinge on how many people attend trials (or watch Court TV). Most newspaper, news station, and news blog’s budgets do hinge on the size of their audience, and that gives them a very different set of incentives. They profit – or so they believe – by attention-grabbing heat, not by problem-solving light.

“Welcome Temporary War Experts”

The underlying problem, Dr. Patterson argues, is that most reporters lack the knowledge to move beyond the ‘He Said, She Said’ model:

Journalists are often in the thankless position of knowing less about the subject at hand than the newsmakers they are covering, a reversal of the typical situation, in which the professional practitioner is the more knowledgeable party. Only rarely do clients know more about the law than do their attorneys, whereas newsmakers normally know more about the issue at hand than the journalists covering them. During the Persian Gulf War, journalists who visited the Pentagon press office were greeted with a sign that read, “Welcome Temporary War Experts.”

Journalism programs teach reporters how to conduct interviews, how to file Freedom of Information Act requests and retrieve public documents, and how to craft quotes into a news story. My J-school program required courses in political science, economics, media law, sociology, and polling and statistics. But all of those were introductory surveys, and many J-school programs don’t require even that.

“The message has been so downbeat for so long”

This knowledge gap leaves most reporters without the skills to independently evaluate public policy challenges or solutions, leaving them little choice but to rely on the debates between elected officials and other civic leaders. And that has real risks, as Dr. Lawrence explains:

When the democratic process is functioning well, news that is indexed to elite debate probably offers a reasonably good representation of public opinion. But when elites do not act in good faith or when political pressures hamper elite debate, a press that merely indexes that debate may not be operating in ways that support a healthy democracy.

Dr. Patterson presses the issue further, offering survey data to show how the ‘He Said, She Said’ model fuels cynicism:

Journalists in this instance were not trying to deceive the public. When they referred to policy trends, they usually cited them correctly. However, the positive trends were buried in the news, which highlighted instead political failings and peccadilloes.[…]

Public skepticism about government performance is also apparent from a 2010 University of Maryland survey that asked Americans about the impact of nearly a dozen public policies. Respondents greatly underestimated the effectiveness of all of them, leading the Maryland researchers to conclude: “False or misleading information is so widespread in the general information environment.”

An irony of the press’s critical tendency is that it abets the right wing. Although conservatives claim the press has a liberal bias, it’s negative focus reinforces [conservatives’] antigovernment message. For years on end, journalists have told the news audience that political leaders are not to be trusted and that the government is poorly run. The message has been so downbeat for so long that many Americans have taken it to heart.

As we’ll see tomorrow, Dr. Patterson argues that to correct this, we reporters who can do more than set up and transcribe heated debates. We need reporters who know enough about the issues they cover to make independent inquiries and fact-check the people they interview.

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Happy Friday!