November 08, 2004

News Coverage of Liberty and Security

I am in Los Angeles for a few days at a meeting of the 9/11 Security and Liberty Fellowships sponsored by the Institute for Justice and Journalism. I presented an examination of security coverage by newspapers. Here is the nut of my contribution (I’ll post the entire speech and slides later when time permits)

The vast majority of stories are short, off the news, told from an institutional or bureaucratic perspective, and soporific in their “fairness.” The exceptions are, for the most part, found in the largest papers, but only 2.5 percent of the newspapers in the United States have circulations of more than 250,000, meaning that the millions of other newspaper readers rely on routine wire stories or condensed versions of Times or Post or Tribune stories to learn about national security issues. Stories about how these issues affect the local communities of mid-sized and smaller papers are all but nonexistent. Even readers of the 38 newspapers with more than 250,000 circulation are more likely to see stories that are reactive and routine rather than enterprising and exceptional.

Here are some notes from later in the day when Tom Goldstein, former dean of the Columbia University journalism, talked about why some stories are not covered in the mainstream press:

 “Contemporary journalism has too narrow an idea of what’s important.”

 Goldstein quoting former New York Times editor Max Frankel: “The number of reporters and editors who are actually adding to the national knowledge is pitifully small.”

 Goldstein on reasons why what Gene Roberts, former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer called “news that oozes” – the slow developing issues in our world – doesn’t get covered:

 “The press is crisis oriented.”
 The NIH – not invented here – syndrome – that causes news organizations, especially large ones, to not report good stories broken by competitors.
 Competition homogenizes news coverage; fast-thinking, not thoughtfulness is rewarded.
 The press has a “bias toward the middle” so emerging ideas from the edges are undercovered.
 Lack of transparency with news consumers, who have no idea how newspapers are organized or why, or why some beats are staffed and others are not.

Other themes that emerged during the day:

 Post 9/11 America is covered in slices. The big picture – how the country has changed, or how our local communities have changed – remains blurred because the press concentrates on incremental movements by institutions or public figures. One fellow, who said: “I want to quit covering the (terrorism) beat like an apartment fire.”

 Security coverage is “episodic” and there needs to be more emphasis on the broader question asked by another fellow: “Is the war on terrorism good policy?”

 Seth Rosenfeld, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, suggested reporters to explore further the “inherent dangers” that exist in the “combination of great secrecy and great power.”

 David Corn of the Nation: Most security coverage is shaped by “deference to the official agenda.”

Posted by Tim Porter at November 8, 2004 07:49 AM