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Slow Moving Stories

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


  • Taylor Davidson says:

    It’s a pretty important point that people get what they demand (with their attention and their dollar).

    There will always be a need for a mix between simplified, packaged information and nuanced, complex analysis; the mess of factors that teases out the differences within the range between simple and complex is what creates opportunities for many, many different forms of media.

    Is this a temporary state of disequilibrium between the demand and supply for information and knowledge?

    My question: how will the demand curve for simple and complex re-shape, and how will supply adapt? If people demand more nuance, will we re-shape the economics of media in the process?

    btw, for a great read on this dynamics of niches in media, check out Umair Haque’s Nichepaper Manifesto:

    … with an important quote: “Journalists didn’t make 20th century newspapers profitable — readers did. 20th century newspapers were never supernormally profitable because of what they wrote: it was the natural monopoly dynamics of classifieds that fueled massive margins.”

  • stephanie gerson says:

    [geez, it’s been so long since I commented here! delighted to be back.]

    don’t at least online media track which stories people read/forward/comment on/etc. the most, so that they know which stories/types of stories to offer? (and so that the above stat on media and public disagreeing about which stories are important doesn’t end up happening?)

    does it make sense to talk about “the media” as a whole, when different media outlets offer such different coverage? when talking about economies we use absolute *and* relative metrics, i.e. GDP and distribution of wealth (both are meaningful individually and together). perhaps we can somehow do the same when talking about the media, i.e. total coverage (absolute) and distribution of coverage (relative)?

    your point about blogs being better at covering slow stories speaks to the need to elaborate a better understanding of which media outlet are effective for covering which types of stories. (if blogs are better at slow, newspapers might consider partnering with them to provide background for their ‘faster’ articles…) then we can more effectively create links between the organisms in our increasingly diversifying media ecosystem.

  • A Look Back at Fukishima | Noah Brier dot Com says:

    […] For all the talk about the public’s declining attention span, the media is just as bad. I mentioned this a few years ago, but I still think often about this quote from the 2008 Pew State of the Media report: Rush […]

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