Thursday, March 31, 2005

Hey, How's Your News: The State of the News Media

A major study, conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, entitled “The State of the News Media,” takes a multi-faceted look into where the news media stands in early 2005, and where it might be headed.

Five major trends were cited as the takeaways from the world of the media, 2004:

          * There are now several models of journalism, and the trajectory increasingly is toward those that are faster, looser, and cheaper.
          * The rise in partisanship of news consumption and the notion that people have retreated to their ideological corners for news has been widely exaggerated.
          * To adapt, journalism may have to move in the direction of making its work more transparent and more expert, and of widening the scope of its searchlight.
          * Despite the new demands, there is more evidence than ever that the mainstream media are investing only cautiously in building new audiences.
          * The three broadcast network news divisions face their most important moment of transition in decades.

A quick look through the reported trends provides an excellent snapshot of the state of the amorphous and ever-widening concept of media. In essence, the trends make sense in that they reflect everything that I’ve seen and heard over the last year.

The following quote reveals a succinct description of the currently raging blogs vs. journalism debate:

“The traditional press model - the journalism of verification - is one in which journalists are concerned first with trying to substantiate facts. It has ceded ground for years on talk shows and cable to a new journalism of assertion, where information is offered with little time and little attempt to independently verify its veracity.”

And even more crystallized:

“Blogs helped unmask errors at CBS, but also spread the unfounded conspiracy theory that the GOP stole the presidential election in Ohio.”

This points toward the argument that quality content is quality content as quality journalism is quality journalism, no matter where it turns up or whatever form it takes. Of course, the reverse is just as true.

Analysis of news coverage – particularly of the biggest stories of 2004 – again reveals some interesting tid-bits that are certainly food for thought.

“Two stories dominated the year, the war in Iraq and the election, and both were caught in the maelstrom of debate over media bias.”

Interestingly, in the light of accusations of a liberal and biased mainstream media, it was found that coverage of the war in Iraq was fairly even-handed in the face of prolonged combat: 25% negative, 20% positive, 35% neutral.

“Fox was twice as likely to be positive as negative. CNN and MSNBC were more evenly split.”

On the presidential election, however, bias-seekers may have more ground to stand upon.

“Looking across all media, campaign coverage that focused on Bush was three times as negative as coverage of Kerry (36% versus 12%) It was also less likely to be positive (20% positive Bush stories, 30% for Kerry).”

The conclusion to the report points a blunt, accusing finger toward the trend of entertainment news or “infotainment” in many (too many) forms of media:

“As audiences declined, because of technological and cultural changes, news organizations felt pressure on revenues and stock performance. In response, they cut back on their newsrooms, squeezed in more advertising and cut back on the percentage of space devoted to news. They tried to respond to changing tastes, too, by lightening their content. Audiences appeared to gravitate to lighter topics, and those topics were often cheaper to cover. Those changes, in turn, deepened the sense that the news media were motivated by economics and less focused on professionalism and the public interest.”

The final note of the report is quite bleak:

“The challenge for traditional journalism is whether it can reassert its position as the provider of something distinctive and valuable - both for citizens and advertisers…. Somehow journalism needs to prove that it is acting on behalf of the public, if it is to save itself.”

Will electronic media and blogs continue their rush into the spotlight? Is the traditional media doomed?

Yes and hardly. Reports of the death of traditional media are highly exaggerated. Electronic media will continue to increase its role (including blogs), but will have to show a degree of credibility in order to be taken seriously by a wary public.

Quality will prove out over time. Let’s remember that the Internet is still but a pup.

6 comments:

PJB said...

Christopher Hitchens has an interesting piece on the Ohio numbers in the new Vanity Fair: http://makethemaccountable.com/articles/Ohio_s_Odd_Numbers.htm

Maybe the blogs we're spreading conspiracy theories after all?

The Sore Loser said...

I don't think you can conclude anything about media bias by looking at the percentage of positive vs. negative stories. After all, I bet there were many more negative stories about Saddam Hussein than either Bush or Kerry, but few would regard the media as biased because of this. Moreover, serial killers get bad press, but that's hardly indicative of bias.

A charge of bias can only be substantiated if it can be shown that the media is being *unjustifiably* critical or supportive of some candidate. Objectively speaking, in the last election, there were many reasons to criticize Bush and relatively few to criticize Kerry (there were also few reasons to praise Kerry or Bush). So it's not surprising that there were more negative stories about Bush than Kerry. If there had been fewer negative stories about Bush, then the media could have been accused of bias.

The Sore Loser said...

On a completely unrelated matter, I heard on your podcast that your mention of "real" politik refers to street names. I always assumed it was "real politik" in the French, Kissingerian sense of the term.

Eric Berlin said...

PJB: I don't think "the blogs" have the same ability to conspire as the media itself. Which is to say: none. I'll check out the Hitchens article later, thanks.

Sore Loser: I think you're right in saying that Bush should have had a more critical once over from the media. He's the incumbent, the guy asking to get re-hired.

However, I think Kerry got taken over the coals over Swift Boats (partly his own fault in refusing to run a disciplined campaign) by some fringe group. Look for this type of thing to be a dominant theme in presidential politics for some time to come.

Also: please post your comments with regard to the podcast under the Podcast #1 post! ...And I'll explain to your hearts content, I promise.

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