Saturday, April 01, 2006

Why the News is Broken

In the interests of full disclosure, I'd like to lay out my credentials for making this post, right off the top. I'm in a subset of the media professionally, I used to date a reporter, and I've studied a great deal of media theory, everything from Walter Lippmann to Jaques Derrida to that other Canadian English major made good, Marshall McLuhan.

The closer you are to knowing the first-hand details of any given news story, the more wrong the press coverage seems. Why is that? Well...

The news-reporting process distorts, omits, or unduly weights certain information. It happens in a variety of ways, through news story format, the hierarchy and procedure of the newsroom, time pressure, the culture of reportage, and politics.

News Story Format: A news story is structured in a certain, very specific way. The most common (and almost ubiquitous, at least in daily papers) format for structuring a news story is a top-down structure, or inverted pyramid format. This structure presents the most important information -- or what the writer perceives as being the most important information -- in the first paragraph (or "graf," in the trade), and then fills in the details in the body. A disparity between the actual and perceived importance of the facts in question which results in the most salient facts being in the body of the story (where people are less likely to read it, alas) is called a "buried lede."

Similarly, most newspapers are written generally to about a 6th to 10th grade reading level (6.0 to 10.0 on the Fleisch-Kincaid readability index). Reporters may, when covering factual subjects, omit technical terms in favour of less precise or accurate lay terms in order to keep the readability high. (For those of you who are wondering, my non-documentation writing generally scores about a 12.0 on the F-K scale, which I think may be the highest it can go. You can find out more about readability tests here.)

A Quick Note on News Coverage Versus Everything Else: The person who inspired this entry was quick to point out that certain writers appearing in newspapers writing on certain subjects have no compunction about name-dropping obscure people or making allusions or references to works of high, low, or indeterminate culture of breathtaking obscurity. The writer of the piece which inspired his complaint, Ben Goldacre, writing an article in the Guardian called "Don't Dumb Me Down," seems to think that humanities graduates (of which Your Humble Narrator is one, thank you) are the root of all evil when it comes to bad reportage, especially in science writing.

Note to Ben: Never confuse the system with the actors in it, thank you.

As to the charge that when discussing non-science-related subjects, writers are quick with obscure references and slow with explanations, that mostly happens in non-fact-based writing -- also found in newspapers -- that may superficially look like news coverage, but isn't. The main offenders in this category tend to be opinion pieces and various types of reviews, neither of which are news.

Relatedly, to Goldacre's contention that "nobody dumbs down the finance pages," I would argue that yes, in fact, they do. Most stories in the finance section are written exactly the same way as other news stories, and don't draw much on knowledge of economics, finance theory, operations theory, or anything more intellectually challenging than the tacit assumptions of the dominant (editorial?) culture. Insider tip: Actually, many business section stories, like other news stories, draw on corporate press releases.

Newsroom Hierarchy and Format: Most reporters are not generally given a lot of choice in what they get to write about. I'm not talking about the Judith Millers and John Markoffs of the world; I'm talking about the anonymous little stringers who make thirty or forty grand a year and have an editor or two breathing down their necks. Usually the editor or editors to whom the reporter is responsible assigns them a handful of things to chase after, and then decides which of the submitted finished articles are going to run. (The other ones are referred to as "spiked.") The editorial decision to run a piece or not can be influenced by the length and divisibility of the finished product (will it fit in the page layout?), the quality of the writing and research, the "fit" with the rest of the newspaper's (section's) content, and political considerations, up to and including pressure from politicians and advertisers. (For instance, a newspaper may be reluctant to run a story on a major social problem if a major advertiser in the paper doesn't want their ad juxtaposed with that story.)

Time Pressure: Most rank-and-file eporters are generally on deadline to file two or three stories per working day. That may be in addition to any longer-term stuff they're chasing after, although admittedly, the budgets for long-term, in-depth reporting are going way down at most newspapers, which means that reporters who specialise in such pieces (like Sy Hersh, for instance) are now finding their work appearing magazines (such as The New Yorker or Rolling Stone) or books. Since most stories are short pieces (200-1000 words) on current, short-term events and need to be filed almost immediately, and since it does (as many of you know) take some time to actually physically type in anywhere from 6-3000 words in a day (my record for typing 3000 words in a day is about 4h), this intense deadline pressure often means reporters might have a couple hours at most to research a topic. This perforce is not going to turn news stories into masterfully-researched, intricately detailed, theoretically sound articles; it's going to result in newspapers full of things yanked off the wire services, or pounded out under pressure, or pulled (almost?) verbatim from the aforementioned corporate press releases. Final deadline is usually around midnight; after that, it's gone to final layout and printing.

The Culture of Reportage: In a lot of cases, the culture of reportage is such that reporters consider themselves capable of becoming "instant experts" on everything, although the contraints of the system basically prevent them from getting to the point in knowledge where they realise that their initial assumptions are wrong or distorted. As a first class example, who could forget Judith Miller's "I was proved fucking right!" outburst, even when it has pretty much always been clear she was fucking wrong? The belief in the infalliability of the reporter's own reportage runs fairly deep in newsroom culture, influenced by the public's generally credulous approach to news-reading.

Once reporters have done as much research as they feel is necessary, or have time for, whichever comes first, they then decide what of that gathered information is most important, that is, what goes in the first paragraph of the story.

Politics: As I've mentioned before in this essay, politics is also a major shaper of the news. This may apply to partisan party politics, although that trend is diminishing and becoming diffused by chain ownership of media outlets. The larger question of political bias introduced by media magnates is probably best addressed by books such as Ben Bagdikian's The Media Monopoly, and fact-checked at More often, the political considerations involve not offending advertisers, local movers and shakers, or the Editor-in-Chief. These pressures can sometimes turn the already selective news-presentation process into outright censorship.

Based on those factors, and probably some other ones I've missed, it's no wonder stuff comes out a little bit broken. The medium is the message, and in many cases, the medium is kind of dysfunctional.


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