The (hoaxed) story of poor Rom Houben is one I’ve blogged about twice already. I’ve also blogged on various other journalistic failures in the past. While I’m not a journalist myself, and am no “media critic,” as a skeptic, I find the conduct of the mass media over the last few years rather galling. The trend is not a new one, it began as long ago as a couple of decades, and may even date all the way back to the aftermath of the Watergate scandal (for reasons I’ll try to address later). Essentially several things have happened to journalism and the mass media. The following are now very common … but also very bad … tropes of journalism:

  1. Press-release journalism: This is seen most often in reports on medical “discoveries,” but it happens in most sciences, technologies, and even sometimes in political reporting. In this trope, some person or group issues a press release; the contents of the release are then propagated verbatim, or close to it, by various outlets. In some cases, an expert is found to comment on the story, but overall it’s just the press release itself and it’s reported unskeptically. There is little or no “news” in stories like this. Mostly they’re just efforts to sell a book, get some attention, or angle for more research funding.

  2. Conclusion-based reporting: This is the trope in which the event or thing being reported is not actually the story … the story, instead, is some conclusion that the reporter has reached, about it. An example of this trope in the last few months has been stories along the lines of, “Is Obama’s presidency finished?” This is a conclusion that was drawn from things like having to retool his war effort and his failure, to date, to get healthcare reform passed. Well, I’ve got news for people … Obama’s term is not over. It won’t be for over 3 more years. Reporting on him as though he’s “finished” is not only factually incorrect, it’s absolutely unhelpful. I don’t need to know that some reporter or pundit thinks Obama is “finished.” I do, however, need to know — as an American — the status of his policy initiatives, whatever those may be. Those important facts are clouded by the conclusions being made about them. It doesn’t help and only obfuscates the truth.

  3. Emotion-centered reporting: These are reports in which a token person affected by it is selected as an exemplar, and made to seem typical of it; and this, in turn, is used to make the basic story seem more or less important than it truly is. A recent example are reports about the protocol for mammograms being altered. Many stories interviewed women who had breast cancer, or their survivors, to see how they “feel” about the proposed changes. Unfortunately, while people’s feelings are real, they are not facts, and have nothing to do with this as a medical story. Sure, it sounds compelling to hear someone say she’s upset because her breast cancer might not have been detected under the new protocol, but that person’s feelings have nothing to do with the proposed change. As with #2, all this does is obfuscate the facts.

  4. The token skeptic: This is a common trope found in “documentaries” about strange phenomena (e.g. UFOs), but is increasingly found in relation to some of the above (especially #1). In this trope, there’s a story about something novel or controversial or both. It includes remarks by some skeptic. Those remarks are invariably closer to the end of the story than its beginning, and the skeptic’s view is presented as a “minority” view, so that the original intended conclusion of the story, as the reporter wrote it, is actually reinforced rather than refuted by the skeptic’s presence. In political reporting, this trope appears in “talking head” shows, where “alternating views” are offered … but are presented in such a way that the “skeptical” or contradictory view is actually undermined.

  5. “Trend” reporting: This is one of those wherein the error of the trope almost speaks for itself. It shows up a lot in technology reporting, but can be anywhere. A good example of this are all the stories that have run in the last year or so which — basically — say nothing more than “People are using Twitter!” Sorry, but this kind of thing is just not news. Twitter going down for a day is news, to those who use it, and only for that day … but the trend of using Twitter itself, is not. The same goes for all the political-world reporting, over the past few weeks, which basically say, “Sarah Palin has a book coming out!” Again, this is not really useful news. Sure, report on it once the book is released … but continuing, over a period of a few weeks, to interview people over what they think of Palin and/or her book, is not news. It just isn’t.

  6. Rumor reporting: Gossip journalism has been around for a long time, and in some cases it can generate genuine news. But these days it’s reached pandemic proportions and has become a world unto itself, to the point where reporting on the rumors themselves is considered news. “Who leaked X?” with attendant speculation as to why X was leaked, get propagated endlessly … without anyone even bothering to find out how true X is and without admitting that not all the facts are in.

  7. Celebrity news: Need I really point out that the doings of celebrities really is not news at all? That celebrities have their own PR apparati that continually manipulate the media into reporting what they want reported, meaning the “celebrity press” is really just a collection of mindless robots spewing celebrity-generated pablum that isn’t really news and that no one needs to know about?

  8. Economic reporting: The plain truth about any kind of reporting on the economy, is that no one — not even the best economist in the world — truly understands the economy. So what reporters do is come up with “angles” to report on, about the economy; little snippets and glimpses of pieces of it, which are digestible and understandable to the reporters and readers. The problem is that these little bits do not necessarily represent the economy as a whole. This leads to the stories we’ve been treated to for most of this year, which alternate between, “The recession is over!” and “The recession continues!” None of this helps anyone. No useful information is conveyed. We all remain just as stymied as we were before, by the seesawing stories that tell us wildly-different things. It really needs to stop … now.

  9. Press-conference journalism: This is related to #1, press-release journalism, but can be many times worse. In this, someone holds a press conference, says something, and the claims are reported as such. Very little else is looked into, and no other information is offered. This shows up often in reporting on criminal justice. For example, a police department briefs reporters on some crime. The (often minuscule) amount of information provided, is what gets reported. No questions are asked of anyone, except the police spokesman. Very few facts about the crime/event are looked into. Time was, when a crime happened, reporters would be all over it, interviewing witnesses, friends, relatives of the accused and/or victim(s), and so on. This no longer happens. Whatever the police release publicly is what we learn. There is no additional investigation by reporters. (On the flip side, defense attorneys sometimes have press conferences, and likewise their claims get reported, but the nature of those claims is also never investigated by journalists.)

These and other tropes are as uninformative as you can get. Facts get buried among all the obfuscation and failures to question or investigate. As media outlets pare down, this will only get worse, not better, so it doesn’t look as though this will improve any time soon.

As for the impetus for all of these changes … the Watergate scandal showed journalists that the “meta-news” — i.e the “backstory” and presumption about news events — could in many ways carry more weight than the news itself. In the case of Watergate specifically, the facts of the case were rather dry and sometimes a bit subtle. The story itself came in a slow dribble, with some pieces of the puzzle appearing as disconnected enigmas that only later, and in not-very-obvious ways, connected to the rest of it. In terms of the facts of the scandal as they were strictly reported, Watergate did not seem all that remarkable … not back in the middle of 1972 when those facts had started to be collected.

The real impact of Watergate only came in the question of, “What would make the President and his White House staff do all of these things?” This is not a question that was directly answered by the players involved … either they were dishonest about it or chose not to explain since they were told not to or were under investigation/indictment themselves. Moreover, a lot of drama played out as the Watergate scandal was revealed. What were the players going to say in the Congressional hearings? Would they keep obfuscating or would they spill the beans? What would the next major revelation be? Who might actually finger the President? There were some dramatic developments, e.g. the revelation by Alexander Butterfield of a recording system in the Oval Office, and that was followed by the drama of the White House reaction to demands for the tapes.

In these and other ways, the “meta-story” of Watergate, became the story of Watergate. And that “meta-story” was so powerful that it toppled a sitting U.S. president.

Also perhaps coincidentally, 1972 happened to be the year the Summer Olympics were held in Munich. These Olympic games were remembered for two features: First and most obviously, the Munich Massacre (in which Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists); and second, Russian gymnast Olga Korbut became an international media sensation, remembered for a dramatic failure (and later crying jag) during an overall competition, but for making a comeback later and winning other medals. The drama about the Olympics, and about its athletes, eclipsed the sporting events themselves.

Ever since then, journalists have tried to exploit the “dramatic” meta-news in everything else they write. Reporters routinely play up the drama, the emotion, the “backstory,” of pretty much everything. Facts? Hmmph. Too dry to bother with.

While Watergate taught us many things, including that powerful people could be powerfully corrupt, and that our leaders cannot and should not be trusted, this lesson — that the drama that buzzed around the events being reported (what I call “meta-news”) was more important than the “real” news — is not one that journalists ought to have taken away from it. But they did. And we’re all the more ignorant of our own world, because of it.

The other aspects of journalism’s failures … mainly in “press-conference journalism” … comes from the fact that there are just not enough reporters on staff at most outlets to do all the investigative work they used to. With the economy as it is and corporate media ownership being what is, we can expect “lazy journalism” to continue for the forseeable future.

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