The News About the News

American Journalism in Peril

by Leonard Downie, Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser

Vintage Books, 2003, paper


Good journalism ... enriches Americans by giving them both useful information for their daily lives and a sense of participation in the wider world. Good journalism makes possible the cooperation among citizens that is critical to a civilized society. Citizens cannot function together as a community unless they share a common body of information about their surroundings, their neighbors, their governing bodies, their sports teams, even their weather. Those are all the stuff of the news. The best journalism digs into it, makes sense of it and makes it accessible to everyone.

Bad journalism-failing to report important news, or reporting news shallowly, inaccurately or unfairly-can leave people dangerously uninformed. The news media failed to report adequately on the overextended and corrupt savings and loan industry before it collapsed and cost depositors and taxpayers billions of dollars during the 1980s. The press failed to discover and expose the tobacco industry's cover-up of evidence of the addictive and cancer-causing effects of smoking and its clandestine marketing of cigarettes to young people until plaintiffs' lawyers discovered both in the course of liability lawsuits during the l990s. At a time when nearly half of eligible Americans don't vote, the news media have steadily reduced their coverage of government and elections, leaving citizens vulnerable to negative and misleading political advertising that fills the airwaves instead, enriching television and radio stations during election campaigns. Although Americans are more globally connected than ever, most news media steadily and substantially reduced their coverage of foreign news during the last years of the twentieth century, depriving Americans of the opportunity to follow the world around them. This fact was J widely discussed after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, when foreign stories suddenly became fashionable again.

Bad journalism can misinform. Television newscasts and many newspapers routinely overemphasize crime news, so Americans continue to fear that crime is getting worse when it has actually been decreasing for years. Journalists eager to attribute the deadly bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 or the catastrophic explosion of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island to Islamic terrorists misled Americans before they knew that the real culprits were Timothy McVeigh and an exploding fuel tank on the Boeing 747. Glowing, uncritical coverage of new technology companies in the late l990s encouraged many Americans to sink their savings into speculative stocks and mutual funds that soon crashed, collectively costing them billions of dollars.

Much bad journalism is just lazy and superficial. Local television stations lard their newscasts with dramatic video fragments of relatively inconsequential but sensational fires and auto accidents. Broadcast and cable networks devote news time to mindless chat and debate. Newspapers fill columns with fluffy trivia and rewrites of press releases and the police blotter.

Bad news judgment is commonplace. "If it bleeds, it leads" is a self-mocking slogan among local television journalists, but also an accurate description of the reflex of television news directors to make gory crime stories the first news items on the 11 o'clock news. The celebrity divorce, the police raid on a massage parlor, the opening of a county fair-all too often, it doesn't have to be new, or factual, or interesting, or important be labeled "news."

That's the good news. But bad news is more typical. Too much of what has been offered as news in recent years has been untrustworthy, irresponsible, misleading or incomplete. Sometimes, good journalists with the best intentions fall short of their aspirations or make mistakes. But the most alarming weaknesses of the news media have been systemic, and they have seriously undermined good journalism. Too many of those who own and lead the nation's news media have cynically underestimated or ignored America's need for good journalism, and evaded their responsibility to provide it.

Most newspapers have shrunk their reporting staffs, along with the space they devote to news, to increase their owners' profits. Most owners and publishers have forced their editors to focus more on the bottom line than on good journalism. Papers have tried to attract readers and advertisers with light features and stories that please advertisers-shopping is a favorite-and by de-emphasizing serious reporting on business, government, the country and the world.

If most newspapers have done poorly, local television stations have been worse. Typically, local stations provide little real news, no matter how many hours they devote to "news" programs. Their reporting staffs are dramatically smaller than even the staffs of shrunken newspapers in the same cities. The television stations have attracted viewers-and the advertising that rewards their owners with extraordinary profits-with the melodrama, violence and entertainment of "action news" formulas, the frivolity of "happy talk" among their anchors and the technological gimmicks of computer graphics and "live" remote broadcasting.

The national television networks have trimmed their reporting staffs and closed foreign reporting bureaus to cut their owners' costs. They have tried to attract viewers by diluting their expensive newscasts with lifestyle, celebrity and entertainment features, and by filling their low-budget, high-profit, prime-time "newsmagazines" with sensational sex, crime and court stories.

All-news cable television channels and radio stations-to which the networks have ceded much of the routine coverage of serious national and foreign news-fill many of their hours as cheaply as possible with repetitive, bare-bones news summaries and talk shows that present biased opinions and argument as though they were news.

Much of what has happened to news has been the by-product of broader economic, technological, demographic and social changes in the country. Most newspapers, television networks and local television and radio stations now belong to giant, publicly owned corporations far removed from the communities they serve. They face the unrelenting quarterly profit pressures from Wall Street now typical of American capitalism. Media owners are accustomed to profit margins that would be impossible in most traditional industries. For General Motors, a profit margin of s percent of total revenue would mark a very good year, but the Tribune Company of Chicago, which owns newspapers and television stations located all across the country, wants a 30 percent margin. Many local television stations expect to keep so percent of their revenue as profit. Protecting such high profits can easily undermine the notion that journalism is a public service.

Many in the news business became convinced that in an era of unparalleled prosperity and security, Americans would rather be entertained than informed. The consequences of this attitude are obvious on every television news show, and in too many newspapers. The temptation to push serious news aside in favor of glitz and melodrama has too often been irresistible. A national infatuation with celebrities, both encouraged and exploited by news media, has had a profound influence on journalism. It has also tempted too many journalists to try to become celebrities themselves.

Independent, aggressive journalism strengthens American democracy, improves the lives of its citizens, checks the abuses of powerful people, supports the weakest members of society, connects us all to one another, educates and entertains us. News matters.

Pew survey

52 percent of Americans said they only follow national news when something big is happening; 63 percent said the same about international news.

In the l990s the newspaper industry fell into a siege mentality. Early signs of defensiveness were evident in the eighties, the decade when newspapers all over America copied the color and graphics of USA Today, but rarely if ever gained new readers. A more powerful paranoia was born in the recession of 1990-91 and aggravated by a sharp increase in the price of newsprint as the recession ended. Total newspaper circulation declined, gently but steadily, and for some papers precipitously. Newspaper publishers began to pay serious attention to statistics that showed a steady erosion of newspaper readership in American society, especially among young people. Editors were shaken by public opinion polls that showed a sharp decline in the credibility of the news media, including newspapers. Then the World Wide Web on the Internet materialized out of the ether, portending, many in the industry initially decided, gloom and perhaps doom. The doom would follow if online competitors to newspapers managed to steal away classified advertising, the source of 20 to 40 percent of all newspaper revenues.

There is no disputing the fact that newspapers are no longer the ubiquitous, pervasive news and advertising medium they once were. In 1964, 81 percent of American adults were regular newspaper readers; by 2000 that number was 55 percent. Young people were the least likely to read a paper. Conceivably, newspaper readers would steadily die out.

Brokaw, Jennings and Rather actually lost about 40 percent of their audience between 1981 and 2001.

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