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August, 2009

Slow Moving Stories

Exploration of the media's lack of explanation and short attention span in covering substantive public policy issues, using healthcare as an example.

An interesting insight from Matthew Yglesias regarding the lack of explanation of what's really going on with healthcare (instead the media is covering the political manouvering) [via rc3.org]:

This is, of course, the media's characteristic flaw. The bulk of reporters and editors at major political media institutions have almost no understanding of substantive public policy issues. And they conjoin to their ignorance a kind of contempt for people who do understand them. Consequently, people who are interested in such matters tend to be driven out of the institutions in questions. Instead, you get a self-replicating cadre of self-congratulatory and shallow people who enjoy doing this kind of coverage while sneering at people who care about substance.

It struck me how this was in line with one of the key findings of the 2008 State of the News Media report from Pew:

Rush Limbaugh's reference to the mainstream press as the "drive-by" media may be an ideologically driven critique, but in the case of several major stories in 2007, including the Virginia Tech massacre, the media did reveal a tendency to flood the zone with instant coverage and then quickly drop the subject. The media in 2007 had a markedly short attention span.

The only way the media knows how to cover something is with "news." It's not entirely fair to blame the media for this, as I suspect that despite theoretically asking for the contrary, the public pays the most attention to those that are constantly feeding new information. The point was also summed up in the bullet right before the "drive-by" one in the report:

The media and the public often disagreed about which stories were important in 2007. For one thing, citizens suggested that the press failed to deliver sufficient coverage of some basic bread and butter issues, such as rising gas prices, toy recalls, and the legislative battle over children's health insurance. They also showed less interest than the media in the crisis in Pakistan and certain aspects of the Iraq debate, such as General David Petraeus' September appearance before Congress. To the extent the press covered distant parts of the world, people in some ways thought even that was too much.

How to deal with slow-moving stories is a real problem. Blogs do it quite well because they're niche and don't really need to worry about anything else. This comment from The Washington Post article Yglesias was commenting on is quite insightful:

Many have said that Post stories routinely assume a foundation of knowledge that they simply don't have. Some said that they don't understand basic terms like "public option" or "single payer." They want primers, not prognostications. And they're craving stories on what it means for ordinary folks and their families.

But how? The Post omsbudsman offers a guess, "I think they want more glossaries explaining basic terms, easily digestible Q&As, short sidebars that summarize complex concepts and graphics that decipher complicated data. And they want stories that say what health-care reform will mean to them." I'm not sure that's it though. I worry that this is one of those things the people say they really want, but then when it's there it turns out to not be so interesting. Generally, though, everything seems to come back to moving away from generalization in the media, which is alright by me.

August 31, 2009
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.