Thursday, March 16, 2017

Dear News Reader - Here's what one reporter would like from you

The tumultuous events of the last year have brought increased pressure from news readers for the mainstream media to provide reporting that's more nuanced, balanced, and in-depth. I've gotten quite a few broad exhortations via social media from people recommending things that reporters can do to ensure that events are covered fairly. I think this is great. But it might surprise you to know that from a reporter's perspective, there's also a lot that news consumers can do to promote the kind of journalism they want. Here's what I, a reporter at a mainstream news organization, believe you as a reader can do:

1) Become an active news consumer - I quite frequently hear people complain that the mainstream media isn't giving proper or sufficient attention to a given issue (it's not unusual that I agree). It's much less frequent that I hear someone say "Because I think the MSM coverage of X issue is inadequate, I've started reading (blogger/tweeter/professor/informed-commentator/alternative-publication)." People are quick to remember that mainstream media at times lacks nuance. The fact is that mainstream media isn't going to be the right venue for every story, and I don't see any shame in that. But people are also quick to forget that leaving the mainstream requires searching for different sources of information that are more focused on a given issue but still aren't so detailed as to be overwhelming. This is a valuable endeavor, but it's also a time commitment. Be realistic about how much space you have in your life for the news, and how that affects what news you end up reading. And if you do find new voices that offer compelling writing, support them - they often write in their spare time and at their own expense.

2) Remember that the media is chasing your clicks - Media groups are often seen as opinion makers who can change people's views with the flip of a switch. I won't deny media's influence on public opinion, but I would also point out that the media is just as often a slave to it. No media group wants to be behind on a story that's on the tip of everyone's tongue. That means events that appear to have little objective newsworthiness can become news simply because they're being talked about. When people ask me "Why does the media spend so much time writing about bogus scandals?" my immediate response is "Because it's what people click on." If you look at news aggregator sites like Google News or Memeorandum, which rank stories based on who is reading, searching and linking to them, you'll sometimes see things at the top that look tendentious or frivolous. Remember those stories didn't make it there because of a decision by cigar-smoking editorial fat cats. They're there because we - news readers - put them there. As news readers, let's own that.

3) Understand investigative journalism - I find readers' expectations for investigative reporting are out of sync with what reporters can actually produce. Journalists cannot be expected to break a Watergate-sized scandal every week. What you're more likely to get is very deep reporting on specific issues - a publicly subsidized property manager providing inadequate housing in DC, lax oil and gas regulations in California, dangerous chemicals being left in barrels in Milwaukee. One of the most comprehensive lists of such reporting is collated by investigative outfit ProPublica under the Twitter hashtag #muckreads.  I can't say I've ever seen these stories at the top of one the news aggregators I mentioned above. "It's because they're not big enough!" I can hear people saying. "Why doesn't the media expose Public Figure X for stealing all the money from Institution Y?!" Believe me, journalists really want to write to write these stories. If they haven't, it's probably because they can't. Remember that we are not federal prosecutors. We cannot subpoena witnesses, "flip" witnesses, tap phones, or hack computers. In most cases, we cannot lie about our identity to obtain information. What reporters unfortunately can do is take innuendo and hallway gossip about Politician X or Institution Y and stitch them into expletive-laced conspiracy theories or elaborate name-calling diatribes. Readers should not confuse this with investigative reporting. My experience is that many do.

4) Don't help us turn ourselves into the news - When public officials block the flow of information to citizens, this is per se a cause for concern that warrants widespread attention. This is much less frequent than routine disputes between reporters and public officials. The latter is rarely newsworthy as such, but polarized political environments tend to blur the line between the two. This diverts attention away from the issues and toward the people who cover them. Readers can't prevent this, but they can avoid celebrating coverage that puts the reporter before the news. "Show journalism" centered on angry shout-fests or personalized Twitter pissing matches tends to be immensely popular among readers, but it limits attention on the underlying issues. If you're not interested in information at the heart of the dispute - e.g. the arcane document that a public official refuses to release to a reporter - it's worth being cautious about getting pulled into the outcry over the fact that the document isn't being released. Actually preventing citizens from obtaining information tends to be a slow and tedious process that generates few headlines. That makes it all the more important that we as readers know how to identify it and follow it closely.

5) Remember that it's citizens, not the media, who make change happen - The press is crucial to ensuring people can make informed decisions. This does not mean that either journalists or the media can or should become the agents of that change, or openly take sides in the face of an increasingly difficult political environment. Critical and aggressive reporting that holds public officials to account does not require openly identifying with any political group or "taking a stand" against any politician. This is not because doing so would violate some sacrosanct precept of journalistic objectivity. It's because this doesn't ultimately work very well - it risks leaving media groups speaking only to people who already agree with the position they've taken and makes it less likely that their stories will force people to rethink their positions or question their assumptions. The media needs to report the news. The rest is up to the citizens.

You may not agree with this approach. I'm happy to discuss any of it, though I prefer to do so in one-on-one interactions. I'm not usually very hard to find. 

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