This summer The Onion ran a satirical piece purporting to be an op-ed by CNN’s managing editor, Meredith Artley, titled, “Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning.” Her explanation for why CNN filled the top news slot with the story “Miley Cyrus Did What???” (this was the actual headline; no need to satirize it) instead of reporting on Syria or the unrest in Egypt: “It was an attempt to get you to click on CNN.com so that we could drive up our web traffic, which in turn would allow us to increase our advertising revenue.”

According to Thomas E. Patterson’s new book “Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism” (Vintage, 233 pages, $15), this kind of thinking is alas, not fiction, but the sort of logic that drives much of mainstream journalism today.

Soft News Overload

patterson_informingthenewsGiven the extent that celebrities are covered in the media, it seems like celebrities must be what interests most Americans above all, but Patterson shows this perception is false, citing a study by political scientist Michael Robinson who analyzed which stories people followed closely. He found that between 1986 and 2007, the stories of most interest to Americans had to do with war and terrorism and bad weather. Of all the types of stories measured by the Pew Research Center, Americans were the least interested in those about celebrities.

So why do news organizations place so much emphasis on celebrity stories? Patterson writes that while most people who regularly follow the news have little interest in celebrity stories, those who don’t pay much attention to news occasionally will if there’s a celebrity scandal to learn about. Journalists are pursuing those temporary extra eyeballs, even at the cost of turning off regular news consumers, who tend to cancel subscriptions when they perceive the quality of coverage has diminished.

Even Hard News is Served Soft

“If wayward and dead celebrities are the salad of soft news,” Patterson writes, “crime is the main dish.” Soft news about celebrities is relatively harmless, except for the resources it takes from more important stories, but Patterson points out the press often gets “hard news” wrong not necessarily through fudged facts, but through the relentlessness of its mistaken focus.

In the ’90s, journalists covered violent crimes incessantly, and even though the rate of violent crime fell during 1992 to 1994, crime news tripled. Americans perceived that their country was increasingly unsafe, “awash in murder and mayhem.” This matters, because when people feel menaced by crime, they are more likely to vote in favor of strict sentencing laws, for example, and other regulations that in turn cause new problems — such as the ever-growing prison population.

Over-focusing on one type of story has other serious consequences, as Patterson points out. In 2001 journalists were obsessed with Congressman Gary Condit and the affair he had with the then-missing Chandra Levy, who, it came out later, was murdered by a different man. “The Condit frenzy,” Patterson writes, continued until September 11. “If journalists had not been preoccupied with the life of a backbench Congressman, they might have acquired a better understanding of who was behind the terrorist attacks.” Patterson points out several warnings issued by officials earlier that year about Osama bin Laden that journalists might have pursued instead of this pointless Condit chase.

Reporters’ Lack of Knowledge Leads to Misinformation

Patterson. Photo by Justin Ide/Harvard News Office

Thomas E. Patterson. Photo by Justin Ide/Harvard News Office

It’s not just the content, Patterson writes, but the style of reporting that can give the audience the wrong impression of the world as it actually exists. It’s cheaper for news organizations to produce op-eds and opinion-based stories than it is to pursue thoughtful investigative reporting. This matters, Patterson writes, because studies have shown that “exposure to one-sided arguments can lead people to adopt extreme political views. It can also give them a warped sense of what the opposing side believes.”

The other standard journalism technique that Patterson takes to task is the “objective reporting model,” the type of stories in which a journalist interviews one person on one side of the issue and a different person on the other side of the issue, and plays the statements off each other without pointing out whether there’s more scientific evidence supporting one side, for example. In this type of story, the journalist often makes no effort to try to uncover the truth. “The objective reporting model,” Patterson writes, “absolves journalists of their part in the deception.”

Journalists cover Washington squabbles and political maneuvering to a far greater extent than the public is interested in these topics, and tend to highlight conflict in their stories. “An irony of the press’s critical tendency is that it abets the right wing,” Patterson writes. “Although conservatives claim the press has a liberal bias, its negative focus reinforces their anti-government message.” He cites Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s belief from “The Elements of Journalism”: “Journalists need to focus on people and their problems, not on politicians and theirs.”

But the main problem with contemporary journalism that underlies all the others, Patterson believes, is that journalists often don’t have much knowledge of the subjects they are covering. They learned how to write articles in journalism school, not how to understand complex scientific theories or business practices. The Internet makes it easier than ever for journalists to check their facts, but “unless the reporter knows something about the subject at hand, the odds of making a mistake are uncomfortably high.”

How to Fix What’s Broken In Journalism

Given the budget and deadline pressures journalists face, it’s unrealistic to expect them to become experts in every topic they cover, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t always be working to deepen their knowledge. To this end, the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education provided grants to 11 journalism schools to find ways to “bring disciplinary knowledge into the classroom.” One method they employ is working with other parts of the university to train journalists in subject matters such as national security or science.

As for journalists who are already educated and working, Patterson points out that National Public Radio has been able to increase its audience at a time when other news organizations are losing theirs, because NPR produces longer stories and focuses more time on policy issues and less on fighting between political factions — coverage its audience values.

Patterson’s primary idea in “Informing the News” is how to transform journalism schools to emphasize “knowledge-based reporting” and produce better reporters. He lists some helpful resources journalists can use to enhance their knowledge, but he doesn’t offer many suggestions for how to turn around the bottom-line-focused CNNs and Fox Newses of today, or the quickly sinking ships of local newspapers.

In Denver in the past decade, I’ve seen newspaper coverage devolve from a healthy two-paper battle to one diminished survivor, the Denver Post. Budget cuts forced the Denver Post to fire almost all of its opinion writers and columnists, but admirably it still includes regular in-depth investigative pieces — there’s just not as much left of the rest of the paper as there used to be. It’s hard to imagine how existing newspapers are going to turn around their finances and bring back the robust reporting on a wide variety of topics that they used to do.

But it is possible to imagine that on the Internet, a new model might develop, through which the public will support and encourage quality, knowledge-based journalism. Because people can only take so much wall-to-wall Miley Cyrus coverage before they revolt.

Jenny Shank‘s first novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her stories, essays and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Poets & Writers Magazine, McSweeney’s, and Dallas Morning News. 

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