What do Reporters Know (and when did they know it)

Composed 2007/09/29

What hapened to Utah's State-wide voucher referendum (it lost, after mendacious opposition from the NEA)? Guaranteed, the papers give a defeat more publicity than they give a voucher victory. Is it just that Schools of Journalism act as filters, or Professors of Journalism as gatekeepers? This is a puzzle.

Anyone who has ever been on the scene when a newsworthy event occurred, and then has read or seen subsequent newpaper or broadcast news accounts must have wondered what alternate reality journalists inhabit. Why do reporters almost always get it so wrong? Inevitably, journalists filter reportage through their own preconceptions and predispositions. When an event is actually news, a house fire, say, rather than some staged performance like a press conference, journalists usually arrive after the fact and must derive their accounts from others, who filter events through their predispostitions (to get their 15 minutes of fame, for example). That's one source of distortion. This does not account for the systematic selection bias of journalists at staged events, where reporters have every opportunity to record the entire story and quote every speaker at a committee hearing, for example.

Likely, journalists calculate that institutional insiders come with ready-made authority. While a journalist will have to spend some effort to justify to readers using a comment from an individual selected at random from the phone directory, institutional insiders need little introduction. Professors of X benefit from the presumption of expertise in X.

A journalist may also calculate that various institutional insiders, sufficiently cultivated, will allow the journalist to make a few small modifications to a press release and claim the work as his own. This energy-saving tactic obviously requires that the journalist maintain cordial relations with institutional insiders. A less extreme variation of this syndrome would be cultivating sources for ease of access to material.

A review of a recent book on CIA intelligence failures suggests that the CIA knowingly fed shoddy intelligence to Executive and Congressional policy makers because CIA employees had nothing better to offer. Rather than admit their utter dispensability, they defrauded taxpayers and deceived policy makers. Something like this may be at work in journalism as well. Artificial drama sells newspapers. "If it bleeds, it leads." Journalists need to be needed.

Has anyone done for Schools of Journalism what Rita Kramer did for Colleges of Education?