The Problems with Journalism

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Virginia Heffernan raises an interesting question in her latest column in the New York Times Magazine: Reader comments are key part of online journalism. So why do they disappoint?

I’ve checked out readers’ comments on many sites — NY Times, WS Journal, Boston Globe, and others — and most of the time, the comments are often off point, ad hominem attacks on either the author or other readers…In general, there’s a school-yard mentality to the responses, which is helpful (apparently) for people who need to vent and rant but not for a general discourse.

That may be the problem.

As search engines allow us to pinpoint the news we want to read because it backs up our world view, we get more upset when we encounter opposing views. And since most mosts are somewhat anonymous, the real service provided by being able to post a response or comment to an article is to be able to let the author know how stupid he or she is. (I try to make reasoned arguments against the columns of political hacks I disagree with, but it amounts to the same thing: I don’t expect the columnists to say, Ah yes, Birnbach’s right; I’ll have to recant in my next column. I’ve often posted comments when I’m upset with the logic, conclusion the author has made.)

To make readers comments more useful, some posted to Heffernan’s article, it might be helpful if the author engaged with his/her readers. Interesting idea — but judging from most of the comments, who would want to?

So, back to the point of the headline.

A friend said a more important question is why does journalism disappoint.

Here are some preliminary answers:

  • The If-It-Bleeds, It-Leads mindset of local news. Tragedy can be compelling, but judging from local TV broadcasts, one might assume that your community — it doesn’t matter which one, because all local TV news does the same thing — is suffering from a plague of fires, car crashes, murders, etc. In other words:
  • Good news rarely gets covered. Unless there’s good video of an animal being saved.
  • Herd mentality. Few want to be the first or only asking a question & when one brave soul finally asks, the rest pile on.
  • Todd over at Communicating With… says “Controversy sells. But then it gets overplayed and people tend to turn it off. It’s cyclical. In that way, journalism disappoints.” The latest example: swine flu. The broadcast coverage of the possible pandemic was termed by “The Daily Show” as a “Scare Off” as each network news program teased us with headlines and graphics intended to scare us — without providing real context or information that could actually help us. (See the segment, below.)
  • Todd also says smaller staffs and fewer pages leads to less depth in the stories that newspapers do cover — and “that used to be the differentiator. TV news could do a quick story, or multi-segment story, but newspapers were where you went to get the in-depth details. Not so much anymore. Reporters don’t have enough time. Instead, they have to hit a story fast and hard and then move on. Often the stories just scratch the surface, leaving the real meat untouched.”

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