osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

How about we also focus on fixing "real news"

I want to highly recommend this report from the Shorenstien Center.

What is important about it is that it links what many people have been saying about the press and its coverage with the historical trends in news coverage.

Tl;dr. News coverage has moved from "skeptical" to "cynical." For the last 40 years, reporting focused on all public figures and public institutions has been increasingly negative. But while this negative coverage is "neutral" in the sense that it applies to Republicans and Democrats alike, the effect has a significant partisan impact. First, by fostering a narrative that ALL institutions and ALL public figures are equally corrupt and/or incompetent, it fosters a doctrine of false equivalencies that prevents voters from effectively evaluating the impact of their political choices. Additionally, the press reflects the same overall messaging of Republicans. This makes it much hared for Democrats to demonstrate the overall effectiveness of their policy choices, despite the lack of partisan intent on news coverage.

As the study author Thomas Patterson observed, this is not a recent trend. It is not particularly linked to race or gender. Cynicism in news coverage using a narrative that everyone is corrupt or incompetent or both becomes the prevailing trend in news coverage since the mid 1980s. In fact, the most negative news coverage for an election (as in the most number of negative stories by mainstream news outlets) was Bush v. Gore in 2000, with the bulk of news coverage questioning Gore's honesty and Bush's intelligence.

I'll note from personal experience that, having been in the media reform advocacy business since 1999, these trends were readily apparent then. PEW has tracked the decline of news coverage and the decline of people willing to watch news since 1998. I will also note that, based on surveys and focus groups, it is the press doing a crappy job that drives the decline and not the other way around.

Although the author does not address this, I will add that the "real news" has thus laid the predicate for "fake" news. If all the real news agrees that Clinton's emails are a "scandal" and mysterious and may contain awful and horrendous things (because who knows?), it becomes easier to manufacture "fake news" that takes it ridiculously further. To put it another way, by promulgating a narrative that everyone in politics is equally horrible and equally corrupt, the press moves the "Overton Window" on what is "crazy conspiracy" v. "at least believable." It is also important that the effects are cumulative over time and overwhelming.

I anticipate that some will react with the response about how awful it would be for the press to cover everything as sweetness and light. Because, of course, concepts such as "nuance" and "degree" have become so utterly foreign to our way of thinking. Indeed, as Patterson observers, and entire generation of reporters and editors doesn't even know what a shift back to "skeptical" rather than "cynical" reporting would look like. (I won't even start with all the bad assumptions about how the market functions, which are usually based on zero actual data and little understanding of how the modern news market operates in its various segments.) (Most of these discussions also fail to take into account what people will pay for if they already strongly distrust the traditional media.)

Also, as I have frequently railed in the past, cynicism is not limited to the news. It has permeated our popular culture as well, and has for about a full generation's worth of popular culture.

All of which means that actually repairing this damage to the tools of self-governance and Democracy is going to be a long and painful process. It is not surprising, therefore, that the media has settled on the "fake news" narrative. We shall see if there is a similar effort to report on and go after the systemic problems with "real news."

Needless to say, the report has not received nearly the coverage in established news as the buzz over fake news. Where it has been covered, the coverage has missed the point.

Consider this from Vox. http://www.vox.com/…/1…/media-coverage-presidential-election

Vox prides itself as providing in depth coverage from a left-of-center perspective. So one would hope that it would tackle the Shorenstien Report and discuss its implications for the future of news coverage. Wrong. Focusing on the one chart that noted that Clinton had more negative coverage than Trump in the last two weeks, because the "losing ground in the poll stories" for Clinton are scored as negative and the "gaining in the polls stories" for Trump were scored as positive, the article is entirely about how "Clinton got more negative press in the last two weeks of the campaign."

The Vox article doesn't even mention that this was a relatively small piece of a long, well researched and nuanced study -- let alone the bulk of the report's findings and conclusions. And, while acknowledging that the bulk of the negative coverage in the last two weeks was the "horse race" coverage (i.e., Clinton losing in polls), and the positive stories about Trump were likewise "horse race" articles on Trump rising in the polls, the Vox article pretty much stacks the deck to conclude that the major news outlets turned on Hillary in the last two weeks of the election.

This is why I say "fake news" is so not the problem. Yes, Vox is left leaning. That's fine. I am all down with partisan reporting that is real reporting. A lot of countries have that tradition, and we used to have that tradition in the U.S. until newspapers declined and many went out of business. But there is a difference between a partisan outlook and bad reporting that ignores relevant context.


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