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December 17, 2010

Cheap news is no news

David Cay Johnson describes how the drive for profits in the newspaper industry is eliminating beat reporting and replacing it with filler material that is of little value.

Beats are fundamental to journalism, but our foundation is crumbling. Whole huge agencies of the federal government and, for many news organizations, the entirety of state government go uncovered. There are school boards and city councils and planning commissions that have not seen a reporter in years. The outrageous salaries that were paid to Bell, California city officials—close to $800,000 to the city manager, for example—would not have happened if just one competent reporter had been covering that city hall in Southern California. But no one was, and it took an accidental set of circumstances for two reporters from the Los Angeles Times to reveal this scandal.

Far too much of journalism consists of quoting what police, prosecutors, politicians and publicists say—and this is especially the case with beat reporters. It’s news on the cheap and most of it isn’t worth the time it takes to read, hear or watch. Don’t take my word for it. Instead look at declining circulation figures. People know value and they know when what they’re getting is worth their time or worth the steadily rising cost of a subscription.

During the past 15 years as I focused my reporting on how the American economy works and the role of government in shaping how the benefits and burdens of the economy are distributed, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed at the superficial and often dead wrong assumptions permeating the news. Every day in highly respected newspapers I read well-crafted stories with information that in years past I would have embraced but now know is nonsense, displaying a lack of understanding of economic theory and the regulation of business. The stories even lack readily available official data on the economy and knowledge of the language and principles in the law, including the Constitution.

What these stories have in common is a reliance on what sources say rather than what the official record shows.

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