To move beyond ‘He Said, She Said’ reporting and offer the in-depth policy stories that Americans need and want, journalists need both reliable, factual resources and the subject knowledge to put facts in context. (More)

Informing the News, Part III: Knowledge-Based Reporting (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers Thomas Patterson’s new book Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism. Thursday 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. Yesterday we saw the limits of ‘He Said, She Said’ journalism, and why generalist reporters are hamstrung by asymmetrical knowledge. Today we 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.

“They’re an easy fix”

It’s easy to blame the media for our under-informed public, but really it’s our own fault. Americans worship celebrities, and that celebrity worship abounds enough that psychologists named a syndrome for it. It may be destroying our society, experts warn, although other experts say celebrity worship is grounded in evolution and is perfectly natural:

Humans are social creatures, psychologists say, and we evolved — and still live — in an environment where it paid to pay attention to the people at the top. Celebrity fascination may be an outgrowth of this tendency, nourished by the media and technology.

“In our society, celebrities act like a drug,” said James Houran, a psychologist at the consulting firm HVS Executive Search who helped create the first questionnaire to measure celebrity worship. “They’re around us everywhere. They’re an easy fix.”

But an easy fix for whom?

“Giving the people what they want?”

If asked why they breathlessly reported Justin Bieber’s release after DUI charges yesterday, while largely ignoring the news that 3 million people have now bought private health insurance through Affordable Care Act exchanges, news producers and editors would probably reply that they’re “giving the people what they want.”

Yet political scientist Michael Robinson reviewed 20 years of Pew Research data on what stories Americans actually followed and found very different preferences:

  • 41% – War and terrorism
  • 40% – Bad weather
  • 39% – Natural and man-made disasters
  • 35% – Financial and economic problems and policy issues
  • 29% – Crime and social violence and policy issues
  • 25% – Other domestic policy problems and issues
  • 22% – Campaigns and elections
  • 21% – “Inside Washington” politics
  • 20% – Political scandals
  • 20% – “Other” politics
  • 18% – Foreign policy/international affairs
  • 17% – Celebrity lives and deaths
  • 16% – Celebrity scandals

Perhaps rather than asking why “Americans” are so “obsessed” with celebrities, we should ask why our media are so obsessed with them. As Dr. Patterson notes, the 2007 death of Anna Nicole Smith was in the top third of news coverage, in terms of broadcast minutes and print-online stories published. Her death was also in the bottom third of news consumption, in terms of stories “followed closely” by survey respondents.

Moreover, Dr. Robinson found that Americans care more about policy (35% followed President George W. Bush’s 2005 attempt to privatize Social Security) than about politics (on average only 17% followed New Hampshire presidential primaries), and we care even less about scandals (only 15% followed Tom DeLay’s 2006 resignation or Dan Rostenkowski’s 1994 fraud indictment).

Dr. Patterson cites similar findings from a Harvard University study that concluded “Public affairs news is more appealing than soft news to most people,” and other research that found people are more likely to click – and bookmark and return to – links to online stories that provide practical details such as government programs’ eligibility and contact information.

“Heavily covered, but lightly watched”

As Dr. Robinson wrote in his Pew Research study, “Inside-the-Beltway stories are heavily covered, but lightly watched.” Why, then, is our political news so inundated with them? Dr. Patterson explains:

The oversupply of political [vs. policy] stories reflects what the Washington Post’s Dan Balz calls “the gap” between the interests of “the media and ordinary folks.” Most journalists know a lot more about politics than they do about policy, and they like to cover what they know best – “talking mainly to each other,” as Lance Bennett put it.

Even election coverage focuses more on tactics and gaffes – the “horse race” – than on the candidates’ and parties’ policy proposals and how those might impact ordinary families. And in terms of tactics, election stories on highly-publicized events like conventions and debates, rather than the person-to-person local contacts that sway voters.

In short, much of what the media offer as “news” is akin to the apocryphal drunk looking for his car keys beneath the streetlamp – rather than in the alley where he dropped them – “because the light is better.” We get news that is cheap and easy to produce. As Alison Dagnes wrote in Politics on Demand:

It is infinitely easier to write about the [political] process than it is [to write about] intricate public policy initiatives.

That in turn feeds public disinterest and despair, as Dr. Patterson explains:

To the journalist, each political story is different. To many citizens, such stories look and sound pretty much the same. A Syracuse University survey asked respondents to recall a news story they had seen within the past twenty-four hours and then asked them to describe their reaction to it. News stories about political infighting often elicited no reported reaction at all. Policy-related stories were 50 percent more likely to draw a response. In the same vein, Doris Graber found that when news stories “discussed serious social problems,” people were inclined to think about how the problems could be resolved. But when the stories focused on the political game, people reacted, if at all, with a feeling of resignation, believing that political gamesmanship is something they have no control over.

“Knowledge-based reporting”

The solution, Dr. Patterson proposes, is what he calls knowledge-based reporting … by journalists who have access to independent, reliable factual resources, and who understand the issues and events they cover deeply enough to detect spin and set the facts of a specific story in a context that ordinary people can understand and use.

For that, he argues, we need more fewer generalists and more reporters who are also experts in the fields they cover: doctors like Sanjay Gupta reporting medical news, lawyers like Ari Melber reporting legal news, and climatologists like Heidi Cullen reporting on climate news. Dr. Patterson suggests that journalism schools should actively recruit such experts for masters-level programs where they could learn the craft of reporting, and that such programs might eventually replace the ‘generalist’ model of today’s J-schools.

He also recommends that reporters be taught to use and improve independent factual resources, including the Journalist’s Resource, the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project and Fact Tank, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Joan Shorenstein Center, the Society of Professional Journalist’s Journalist’s Toolbox, and academic research libraries like Google Scholar, the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed, the Social Science Research Network, the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Public Library of Science, and the Open Congressional Research Service.

Our media must rely less on generalists transcribing ‘He Said/She Said,’ and more on expert journalists covering issues they know, using reliable factual resources, and placing today’s events in context. That would be “news we can use” and – perhaps to the surprise of many producers and editors – the news we really want.

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Happy Saturday!