April 06, 2005

Kicking the Pack Journalism Habit

Alan Mutter correctly ties together the falling credibility of the mainstream press - cited by Merrill Brown in his must-read Carnegie report, Abandoning the News - with the excessively myopic coverage of Terri Schiavo. He writes:

"The Terri Schiavo case proves once again that our most respected media organizations can't stop being suckered into covering the kinds of trumped-up stories that increasingly dominate the national news agenda. Once forced onto the public agenda, the concocted stories were treated under the long-standing rules of journalism as legitimate news. Rather than challenge these clearly fabricated stories, the media accepted them on face value because it was easier, cheaper and less politically and economically risky to do so." (Emphasis added.)

Defensive-minded newspapers rationalize mega-coverage of stories like Schiavo and the Scott Peterson murder case by saying they are of pressing public interest, but in fact dispatching reporters to baby sit a dying room or a trial is intellectually less demanding than rooting out news that is unique, relevant and contextual to a local community. Here's how Mutter puts it:

"Strapped for resources, editors and news directors know it is cheaper and easier to cover the Schiavo death watch than to determine how many indigent people died for want of medical care in the 15 years the courts have been tussling over her fate." (Emphasis added.)

Pack journalism is not new. Timothy Crouse identified the phenomena in his 1973 book, "Boys on the Bus," which examined the behavior of the press during the 1972 presidential campaign. He wrote (quoted from a Washington Post story):

"They all fed off the same pool report, the same daily handout, the same speech by the candidate; the whole pack was isolated in the same mobile village. After a while, they began to believe the same rumors, subscribe to the same theories, and write the same stories." (Emphasis added.)

Those two sentences could be applied with equal accuracy to the media mob that nosed its way into the Schiavo trough or bellied up to the Peterson buffet. Crouse wrote aobut the pack before the advent of cable TV and the Internet, media that not only intensified with exponential power the publicity of such cases, but caused mainstream media like newspapers and network news to race to the bottom for audience.

Before Schiavo and Peterson there were plenty of other pack journalism feeding frenzies - some of which I participated in and even directed coverage of, like the disappearance and death of Polly Klaas and the serial murders of Leonard Lake here in California.

Mainstream journalism's internal value system rewards institutions and individuals who excel at covering these types of stories. In the case of Leonard Lake, for example, my ability to drive the story with caffeine-fueled intensity for 15 hours a day partly led to my elevation from the trenches of assignment editing (with, I should add, all my bad habits intact.)

This reinforcement continues. Three of the four newspapers recognized by the Associated Press for spot news coverage in California last year won for their reporting on the Scott Peterson case. I can understand why the Modesto Bee devoted so many resources to the story because it was Peterson's hometown paper. But the others? I say run wire and use your reporters to develop something the separates your paper from the mob.

Riding with the pack means producing generic journalism, the grist that can be found on Yahoo or Google. (Merrill Brown's report found that 44 percent of the 18-to-34-year-olds cited Internet portals as their most frequently used daily news source.)

Newspapers must differentiate to survive - and that means producing journalism that is special and contextual to their home communities, something that cannot be gotten from a wire service or a Web site.

Pack journalism is toxic. It is an addiction to faux news and lazy reporting. But it is also easily corrected because it requires no additional resources, news hole or time - the Holy Trinity of rationalizations for why newspapers don't change. To kick the pack, all that's needed is the will to do it.

[Read: The Abandoned Newspaper.]

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Posted by Tim Porter at April 6, 2005 10:28 AM
Comments

Commenting on Alan Mutter's statement you publish about Terri Schiavo; The remark is oddly on target although you might not agree on the reason. Having followed the story for well over a year, I found that newspapers failed to understand the unique underlying issues that made it more than a typical right-to-die story. As a resul,t agenda journalism was at a high water mark. Only by selective reading of informed blogs (subjective to be sure) was it possible to cut through to the core. Of course, nothing can replace an interested reporter. In San Francisco we are treated to lovingly written articles by committed followers of marijuana production, gender innovation, political glad-handing and the evils of providing goods and services. Analysis contrary to those issues remains muted. By being backhanded in this way papers have created--former readers

Posted by: Bob Holmgren on April 28, 2005 08:02 AM
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