By Dane S. Claussen, Shanghai International Studies University

Informing the News Book Needs to be Informed on Media Management and Sociology of Journalism

Few books about journalism get reviewed from a media management or media economics perspective, which compounds the problem that few books about journalism address the media management or media economics angles or impacts of their content. (Many other books, usually from the political left or political right, make all kinds of assumptions about causes and/or effects of media management and/or media economics without their authors knowing much about them or bothering to find out.)

A good book to look at the media management/economics side of journalism in is Thomas E. Patterson’s new book, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism (Vintage, 2013). It is what would typically be called a “slim” volume, only 143 pages, plus bibliography, endnotes, and index, but it packs a wallop, succinctly making as many points as most nonfiction books do in twice the number of pages. As for at least one other reviewer who has commented that Patterson is largely repeating himself from another book, well, that might be a reason for past Patterson readers to not read Informing the News, but it is hardly an argument that the new book is a bad book, an uninteresting one, or an unimportant one. At the very least, it can be said that Patterson’s previous critiques of, and solutions for, US journalism have not made much impact, so perhaps–because Patterson’s critiques are indisputable and his solutions are on point (their feasibility may well be another issue)–they are worth saying again, and again.

Patterson’s solution for US journalism is not just ho-hum or whatever. What he is calling for is, in fact, revolutionary: journalists having substantial levels of expertise about what they write about, which in turn will decrease factual errors, improve news judgment, increase the quality of sources used, and do something about journalists knowingly and uncritically passing along lies and misinformation from government (and corporate) officials (something that US journalists were supposed to have learned not to do after McCarthyism or at least after the Vietnam War). Many Americans assume US journalists already are knowledgeable, which is just one reason why they seemingly attribute all bad journalism to political (or other) bias rather than simpler and more obvious problem of incompetence. Knowledge-based journalism also is not unprecedented: it seems common in Germany, for instance, and a few elite outlets such as The New York Times have employed MDs to cover medicine, retired military officers to cover national defense, etc. (The Times is not what it is today because of Judith Miller or Jayson Blair….)

Patterson finally gets to the media economics angle of his argument on p. 108, in a chapter (number 6), titled, “The Audience Problem.” Writes Patterson, “The press’s civic obligation has always sat uneasily with its determination to make money,” before breezily going from Federalist era printing contracts to the Penny Press to “newspapers avoided stories that would upset their advertisers. ‘One set of masters,’ political scientist V.O. Key Jr., wrote, ‘had been replaced by another’….

“The press is unusual in that it is a private business with a public trust. It is obligated by its constitutionally protected position to serve the public interest but driven by its business needs to serve itself. The twin imperatives have long been a source of conflict within and outside news organizations, but the business side cannot be ignored. It would be foolish to assume that knowledge-based journalism could gain a foothold in the newsroom if what it produces lacks audience appeal. News organizations are not–consciously at least–in the business of self-destruction.

“Without implementing it on a broad scale, there is no way to prove that knowledge-based journalism would have substantial audience appeal. However, an examination of news consumption patterns suggests a considerable overlap between knowledge-based journalism’s features and people’s news preferences.”

(I would quibble with Patterson only on his assertion being unusual because it is a private business with a public trust. I would say that almost all professionals are private businesses with a public trust, such as doctors, architects, engineers, teachers and professors, CPAs, lawyers, etc.; in fact, in the USA, every art, craft, service, and basic or applied science has been turned into a business, including religion.)

Patterson then goes on to cite various studies by nonprofit organizations (such as Pew)and academics that show that the US general public claims to be much more interested in “financial and economic problems and policy issues,” “crime and social violence problems and policy issues,” “health and safety problems and issues,” and “other domestic policy problems and issues” than it is generally given credit for by journalists (or politicians). Conversely, Patterson shows that the US general public claims to be much less interested in “‘Inside Washington’ politics,” “political scandals,” “‘other’ politics,” “celebrity lives and deaths” and “celebrity scandals” than either journalists’ attitudes or journalists’ behavior would have everyone believe. Although self-reports do not have high reliability or high internal validity for all kinds of reasons, social desirability-driven responses being only one, Pew’s numbers ring true in key areas: the public does seem most interested in “war and terrorism,” “bad weather,” and “natural and man-made disasters” (numbers 1, 2 and 3 in self-reports of most closely read stories); interest in “foreign policy/international affairs” other than “wars and terrorism” does seem low (#12); and it has been well documented that the US public is mostly not knowledgeable about voting records and issue positions of politicians in office or political candidates. (The Pew survey that Patterson cites apparently omitted sports, entertainment, and other news apparently deemed unimportant.)

By the chapter’s conclusion, Patterson is relatively confident and convincing about audience demand for knowledge-based news. But what about the media’s financial and other capability of, and willingness to, supply knowledge-based news?

Patterson dismisses concerns that knowledge-based news is more time-consuming and expensive to produce based on his quite logical deduction that highly knowledgeable reporters can work as quickly as less knowledgeable reporters. (In fact, I would argue that highly knowledgeable reporters can work more quickly than less knowledgeable reporters, assuming that neither is satisfied with doing a lousy job.) Patterson also correctly points out that plenty of excellent (along with plenty of bad) information is quickly and easily available on the WorldWideWeb for even those knowledge-based journalists who still need to do background research on the fly.

What Patterson doesn’t seem to know is that the overwhelming majority of newspaper editors don’t pay much attention to the results of studies by Pew or even firms they hire themselves. Northwestern University’s huge (more than 32,000 randomly chosen Americans) Impact Study back in 2001 showed convincingly that sports news was only 9th in priority for newspaper subscribers, 13th in priority for single-copy buyers, and even lower for “passalong” readers. Every readership study I’ve ever seen or heard about, before or since, had similar results about sports news, yet the average US daily newspaper devoted 22-24 percent of all news space to sports news, easily more than twice as much as any other type of news gets. US newspaper editors, a disproportionate number of whom are former sports editors, routinely dismiss such findings, claiming such surveys must be wrong. Why? Because they say they receive so many comments and complaints about sports news and so few about anything else, as if this proves anything other than sports fan(atic)s apparently have too much free time on their hands. The problem is both deeper and broader than this, of course, since the numbers show that US newspapers not only significantly over-cover or under-cover just about every type of news, not only sports, now but for as long as anyone can remember. A great deal of evidence suggests, in fact, that US journalists disproportionately cover topics that are: fun for themselves, fast, easy, low-risk, and inexpensive, on one hand, or that will win them awards and upward career moves, on the other. Whatever the reasons, admitting to misplaced current priorities means that the US newspaper industry has been doing a lot of things wrong for a long time, and how many editors want to admit that? (It’s more comforting to themselves for US newspaper editors to say they were blind-sided by the Internet, or something like that.)

Patterson also fatally misses the on-the-ground reasons why knowledge-based journalism hasn’t happened much in the US before now, reasons that I previously have written about repeatedly in the context of the US journalism profession’s deep anti-intellectualism. To recite only the major reasons: 1) US news executives tend to feel psychologically threatened by employees who are more specialized, better educated, and/or more intelligent than they are, so don’t hire them. 2) US news executives assume that specialized reporters are biased about their area(s) of expertise. 3) US news executives assume that specialized reporters (such as a business reporter who holds an MBA, or a medical reporter who is an MD) are unavailable, won’t stay long, and/or will be difficult to manage, or at the very least, difficult to edit (assuming that specialists will write nothing but inside-baseball jargon). 4) US news executives know about the small (to very small) audiences (relative to the total US population) of everything from intellectual general interest magazines (such as Harper’s or Atlantic) to political magazines (New Republic or National Review) to any of the political programs on MSNBC, Fox, etc. 5) US news executives think they will not be able to or will not want to move a specialist from one beat to another (say, business/economics to science/technology) when necessary. Each one of these reasons is exaggerated or even incorrect and easily refuted by history and/or logic, but Harvard political scientist Patterson apparently is not even aware of these key bits and pieces of the sociology of US journalism–which aren’t news to anyone who has ever worked anywhere in US news media but only the most elite outlets.

Not only is Patterson overly optimistic about the willingness and ability of US news executives to supply knowledge-based news, but overall, he is overly optimistic about US journalism schools training knowledge-based journalists and then supplying such graduates as new employees. Patterson writes that journalism schools have many professors who have subject-area expertise, that a balance of social science research-oriented professors and former practitioners is a great mix for teaching knowledge-based journalists, and many journalism schools already have altered their curriculum for knowledge-based journalism training. Of course he mentions the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, in which Harvard played (and plays) a key role through its Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy (where Patterson holds a faculty appointment).

But even Patterson admits that “Any large-scale effort to institute knowledge-based training in journalism programs would face resistance.” Second, the integration of social science-oriented and industry-oriented professors has a lot further to go than Patterson realizes; just for starters, note how few relevant scholarly journals articles are cited in almost any mass communication “skills” textbook (ranging from basic reporting to advertising campaigns). Third, subject matter expertise of journalism/mass communication professors tends to be limited or out of date. For example, extremely few US journalism professors teaching business journalism hold a business or economics degree, or have even ever managed anything but the smallest of small businesses. I am one of the very few US journalism/mass communication professors who holds an MBA and primarily or only teaches journalism (versus primarily advertising or public relations), but I do not teach business journalism (because there is so little interest in it) and I earned my MBA 28(!) years ago, before efficient market theory had made unfortunate inroads among even Democrats and before hardly anyone had heard of behavioral economics.

Finally, the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education was, in many ways, just an extension of the central, but unproven, assumption of the 125-year-old education model that is still the basis for AEJMC accreditation standards: journalists will be much better if they, cafeteria-style, take a little bit of the sciences, a little bit of the social sciences outside mass communication, a little bit of the humanities, and (lately) maybe a little bit of business. It has always been a model more based on hope than experience, since daily life and history both tell us that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. As a sensible North Carolina student was quoted in one of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative’s own reports, she didn’t feel any more confident about her classmates’ ability to report on business after they had taken one business journalism course than she was before it.

In fact, journalism students are almost entirely omitted from Patterson’s analysis, other than vague references to the select students at the mostly large journalism schools who participated in the Carnegie-Knight Initiative. Again because Patterson does not teach in a journalism school, he does not know that, like their professors, the overwhelming majority of US journalism students are neither particularly interested in, nor prepared for, knowledge-based journalism. That includes those students interested in something other than sports journalism or basically just “wanting to be on TV,” which is a rapidly diminishing group.

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Dane S. Claussen, PhD, MBA, a former Head of the MME Division, is Visiting Professor, School of International Journalism, and Research Fellow, Center for Global Opinion of China, Shanghai International Studies University, China. He previously was Professor & Faculty Chair, School of Communication, Point Park University, and taught journalism, advertising, public relations, and business at several other institutions. Dr. Claussen edited the international scholarly quarterly, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, for nearly seven years. Before entering the academy, Dr. Claussen was publisher and editor of numerous daily, weekly, biweekly, and monthly newspapers and magazines in the United States.

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