Why We're Losing the News

By Chris Mooney | February 2, 2010 8:52 am

losing-the-news1As part of a course I’m auditing at the Harvard Kennedy School, I have been reading the teacher’s book: veteran newsman Alex Jones’ Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy. It is quite an amazing, saddening read. The problems with the news industry are not new to me–in fact, they comprise a central component of Unscientific America–but the ways in which they are documented here, in unforgettable narrative (the stories of the decline of papers like the L.A. Times) and ironclad analysis (of the economics of why newspapers are suffering so badly), are superb.

Jones’ central motif is that there is an “iron core” of real news, reported news, produced by expert journalists each day. It is expensive to produce, it requires long-trained journalists, travel and research budgets, libel insurance, and much else. It has strong standards: objectivity, balance, and so on. It has never been more than, say, 15 percent of the total content of a newspaper, and always surrounded and adorned by softer stuff: opinion, commentary, film reviews, sports, horoscopes, crosswords, etc. But when newspapers were highly profitable, the revenue they generated effectively subsidized this public service aspect of the newspaper business, and the “iron core” was strong.

Now, though, the “iron core” is no longer so protected, or assured of being subsidized as it once was. Its total size is shrinking, and it is not being replaced, for the most part, on the web–where the content generated is largely commentary and opinion, rather than real news itself, and indeed, feeds off of what’s left of the “iron core.”

Such is Jones’ thesis, and I found myself wondering exactly where science journalism fits into the “core” argument. I would guess that part of science journalism fits, or would have fit, into the iron core; indeed, it is probably among the parts of the core that is vanishing fastest. But at the same time, science journalism is perhaps a different form of highly subsidized coverage, one that fares even worse than hard news. Call it the “science core.” It is even less protected, I would argue, in the new media context; and it is certainly being no better replaced by the science blogosphere or science on the web.

What do we do about this situation, either to save the “iron core” or the “science core”? Maybe that’s a topic for another post…or something Jones will get to later in the book. Certainly, the situation does not look good out there, and solutions are few, or maybe nonexistent, for restoring these forms of journalism as they once existed.

Comments (29)

  1. moptop

    real news, reported news, produced by expert journalists each day. It is expensive to produce, it requires long-trained journalists, travel and research budgets, libel insurance, and much else.

    Riiight…

    Or it could be that the newspapers refuse to print stories that people would gladly read that go against their political bias, for instance, name the major US newspaper that has carried this story:

    A Guardian investigation of thousands of emails and documents apparently hacked from the University of East Anglia’s climatic research unit has found evidence that a series of measurements from Chinese weather stations were seriously flawed and that documents relating to them could not be produced.

    Jones and a collaborator have been accused by a climate change sceptic and researcher of scientific fraud for attempting to suppress data that could cast doubt on a key 1990 study on the effect of cities on warming – a hotly contested issue.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/feb/01/leaked-emails-climate-jones-chinese

    You would have known all about this months ago if you read the skeptical blogs, but if you rely on mainstream US media sources, you have no idea that the climategate thing didn’t just blow over a couple months ago. That is the reason newspapers are dying. Plus this idiotic president they pushed on us without even checking him out in any depth whatsoever.

  2. M. Andrews

    I have to agree with moptop. When I want REAL news, I look to foreign outlets (mainly UK newspapers), or skeptical blogs. I can no longer trust the news fed to us here in the US. It’s all too manipulated and misconstrued. It’s a sad situation.

  3. Gus Snarp

    Yeah, because the UK newspapers are so good. It’s not like they’d ever just make things up:

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201001/british-newspapers-make-things

  4. TFlint

    Certainly, real news is dying, but that won’t have much effect on science news, since general audience newspapers and magazines have always treated science news as “softer stuff.” The only time science is ever mentioned in a general interest newspaper is when there is something novel about it. Today there is a story on Huffington Post about the discovery of a Neanderthal tooth. Although the story is about the first tooth found in a particular cave in Poland, the writer implies that it is the first Neanderthal tooth ever found. Such ignorant reporting has always been the problem, and always will.

  5. //for instance, name the major US newspaper that has carried this story:

    The Wall St. Journal carried it.

  6. Matt T

    moptop: “Plus this idiotic president they pushed on us without even checking him out in any depth whatsoever.”

    How does this sentence have anything at all to do with the article or your central argument?

  7. Timkatt

    @moptop While your desire to be a skeptic is admirable your climate change denil attitude is unfounded, the article you’ve linked while accurately reporting questionable scientific practices also makes the following statement

    … “The revelations on the inadequacies of the 1990 paper do not undermine the case that humans are causing climate change, and other studies have produced similar findings. But they do call into question the probity of some climate change science.” …

  8. Chrysoprase

    Nice attempt at derailing yet another comment section on the Discover blogs directly to AGW moptop, bonus points for throwing in a comment to anger any Obama supporters.

    Silly troll.

  9. Marion Delgado

    A market theocracy will never restore that core: for one thing, what Chris sees as a problem, the Market in its wisdom sees as a goal: the destruction of education and news promotes apathy and inequality.

    So my answer is simple: imitate the capitalists and don’t be overly patriotic. I get news from the Irish Times, Al Jazeera, etc. at the moment, and as they fail or change, I shift. I agree it’s hard for people who have more than one full-time job to figure out good sources, but we have lots of unemployed people now.

    I would also recommend subsidizing good new media over politicians, and libraries over everything.

    I would add that for all its crank tendencies, if you insist on operating in a capitalist, American-centric paradigm, then the HuffPo does a great job overall – it gets the eyeballs of lots of people and injects real news that they are seeking out. You may not like tabloids, but lots of people do – HuffPo is really the first non-right-wing tabloid.

    It’s not pure market economics, but real economics that drives some of this. A Ray Bonner, Gary Webb or Robert Parry gets fired from prestigious reporting jobs for inconvenient accuracy. A Judith Miller gets rewarded repeatedly for a career of being a conduit for lying propaganda – or worse. But the actually existing market is not timeless – loyalty to the goals of inequality and apathy will get you farther than mere immediate market success alone will.

    Inequality in a market theocracy is a goal, because the rich aren’t rich except relatively – because most of what’s wrong with the modern world is not due to greed, but to power imbalances and the lust for power. Again, destroying science journalism is a feature, not a bug, of our system.

  10. moptop

    I apologize for the Obama reference and take it back. It has nothing to do with this discussion.

  11. moptop

    “The revelations on the inadequacies of the 1990 paper do not undermine the case that humans are causing climate change”

    Actually, they do. Whatever the opinion of the writer. The fraudulent paper is cited by many, including CRU and NASA as a justification to ignore urban heat island on the grounds that it insignificant. When I say “fraudulent”, I mean that the author, Wang at SUNY Albany, has been accused of fraud by a credentialed climate scientist.

    Without this paper, the surface temps will likely show less warming over the past century as there will no longer be a basis to ignore UHI.

    But this thread is not about GW, it is about the media not carrying stories, for one thing, and this is one of the stories the media will not carry.

  12. An interesting subtitle: “The future of the news that FEEDS democracy.”

    There seems to be an unquestioned acceptance among journalists, editors and publishers that the news media establishment is vital for democracy. So much so that it has been referred to as ‘the fourth estate’.

    But here’s the thing – the publishing industry in general and news media in particular are collapsing BECAUSE information is so much freer and widely available than it used to be. Why does it follow that because information is more free that democracy will become less free?

    This does not logically follow.

  13. Chloride

    I agree; when I want my news I usually amble over to the BBC.

  14. Mr_5th

    Tom,

    Your argument doesn’t follow.

    ACCURATE information is necessary for the educated populace to be the first and last defence of democracy. Information may be much freer and more widely available but is it any more accurate? Does it not follow that the loss of trained investigators able to analyze and distribute accurate information will be a net loss not just for democracy, but for humanity as well?

    And now, as moptop so elegantly demonstrates if you don’t like the real facts, you can find your own. Or something to cause confusion and stasis.

    But we need the News Media. And we need them back focused on News. And I hate to tell you this. That means someone has to pay for it. It’s expensive.

  15. SLC

    Re Bob Collins

    Of course, the problem is that the Wall Street Journal is now owned by Rupert Murdock and thus is totally unreliable.

  16. >Information may be freer and more widely available but is it any more accurate?

    Something is either accurate or it isn’t. It can’t be MORE accurate. Accurate information is out there, just as it always has been. There’s just more of it available.

    Now, do you really believe that only Trained Journalists can determine what does and doesn’t constitute accurate information? True, discerning it from bogus info is an issue. But that’s just a filtering problem, which solutions are already springing up to manage. You may argue that the solutions that are evolving aren’t perfect. But neither are journalists. In fact journalism has constantly faced credibility problems since its inception.

    Journalism is one way of solving a problem. But it is not a perfect way and it is not the only way. It may continue in the future, on a lesser scale, to still be one of many ways of serving democracy’s need for accurate information. But it’s very clear that the current model is not sustainable.

  17. moptop

    To paraphrase Mousillini,I think, or conceivably Machiavelli, let me control what you know and I will care little for your power to elect. The press has sold out its customers by withholding knowledge that is damaging to their patrons. They forgot who is boss.

  18. moptop

    “Of course, the problem is that the Wall Street Journal is now owned by Rupert Murdock and thus is totally unreliable.” -SLC

    The problem with the press is that SLC is not being ironic here, I don’t think. “Reliable” papers are papers that can be relied upon to bury inconvenient stories.

  19. bilbo

    moptop: “Plus this idiotic president they pushed on us without even checking him out in any depth whatsoever.”

    How does this sentence have anything at all to do with the article or your central argument?

    Oh, it has everything to do with moptop’s central argument! The more he posts, the more moptop reveas himself to be one of the growing herd of mindless sheep who filter news as worthy or false based only on which preconceived political narrative it fits. If it doesn’t paint the picture you wanted, you can just chalk it up to the conspiracy du jour and pretend it doesn’t exist.

    And it runs both ways. We’re all guilty to a degree. There is no unbiased “news” anymore. Just a world of subjective opinion-news hybrids to wade through.

  20. moptop

    bilbo,
    That was a reasonable comment! My work here is done. Continue your echo chamber as you were.
    – Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish!
    -moptop

  21. Milton C.

    Strip away bilbo’s usual silliness and you’ve got a good point, specifically:

    “We’re all guilty to a degree. There is no unbiased “news” anymore. Just a world of subjective opinion-news hybrids to wade through.

    I think this is very true, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an evil thing. If we can teach people to think criticially and not just lap up whatever agrees with their narrative while automatically hurling daggers at those which do not, I think we can get somewhere. As it is, though, real critical analysis of the “news” these days doesn’t make it very far past a person’s own mental spam filter. Not good.

  22. Marion Delgado

    If the denialist commenters who come here honestly don’t know that accuracy is entirely a matter of more or less, and not binary, no wonder they’ve been so easily, and so thoroughly, fooled by the denialism industry to begin with.

    What do you do with “Something is either accurate or it isn’t. It can’t be MORE accurate.”

    I think even the Sumerians knew better. That’s not figuratively but literally caveman logic.

  23. Busiturtle

    Anyone can report the “news”. Countless of entities, beginning with the White House, write news every day for the media to report. Which begs the question of why the networks feel obliged to pay their anchors tens of millions of dollars annually to read a teleprompter when any fool who has completed communications 101 would do it for free beer and pizza.

    On the other hand investigative journalism is hard. It requires talented reporters, editors and producers. Problem is the media companies with the deepest news staffs have shown a great reluctance to investigate stories that might contradict their political bias. Thus we are left with the National Enquirer being more esteemed than the New York Times at uncovering scandals involving Democrats such as John Edwards.

    The news is always biased. It not only reflects the perspective of those who write the news but the prejudice of those who decide what aspects of a story to report. As such it behooves one seeking understanding to consult a diversity of media sources. Anything less and one is likely to be ill informed and surprised by the turn of events as the truth comes out.

  24. Marion Delgado

    And the issue is not a numerical lack of information sources, nor is it even (highly) accurate sources.

    When more information is potentially available than can be paid attention to, comprehended and placed in context by someone getting the information, you have a FILTERING problem.

    When there are more (highly) inaccurate information sources, and they are more readily available, you have a SIGNAL/NOISE problem.

    When the information is a congerie, and other information that would fill the gaps between unconnected nodes of information is missing, as is a structural model to give the information coherence, you have a CONTEXT problem.

    When information that is trivial is readily available, but not information that can empower the audience and help them solve problems, you have a RELEVANCE problem.

    When information is easily concealed because of social, economic, political or military and police power, you have an OPENNESS problem.

    When the mechanisms and laws for imparting public information aren’t followed, you have an ACCESS problem.

    When the information sources that use public resources take advantage of them without repaying that advantage, privileging themselves at the expense of the public and other information sources, you have a PUBLIC INTEREST problem.

    Currently, many or most societies have ALL of these problems. A balanced society would depend on journalism to ameliorate any or all of them.

    Again, none of these are a problem for a corporate culture that doesn’t have the well-being of any particular society or the world at large as a goal.

    Wishful thinking is very dangerous. Neither God nor the Market care at all whether we humans have good or bad information sources as an aggregate. Indeed, the competitive advantage powerful people have in this situation would move the market in the direction of greater informational inequality.

  25. bad Jim

    It’s entirely unsurprising that the overactive testudine is an enthusiastic panty sniffer.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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