No Time for Media to Get Sloppy and Lazy

Washington Matters

No Time for Media to Get Sloppy and Lazy

The print media, especially newspapers, are in a dangerous downward spiral. But just as real journalists -- people who go out and actually do reporting, not just sit and think from their chairs -- are trying to prove their relevancy, media outlets keep making it harder for them to do their job well by cutting staff and other resources. And the sloppier or less useful the journalism, the more irrelevant it becomes. It's entirely possible that modern day journalism will die out from a lack of vitality and purpose rather than bankruptcy.

A Washington Post headline last week blared, "Congress Approves Budget." All fine and good -- except that, no, it didn't. The House passed a version and the Senate passed another version. Lots of important decisions have to be made while compromises are reached -- including some that could determine whether Congress is actually able to tackle and enact health care reform later in the year. Pity the poor reader who in a few weeks starts reading about dramatic budget negotiations and wonders what happened.

Similar headlines appeared throughtout the country. Headline writers have a tough job and often simplify to fit the space in ways that create inaccuracies. But that's no excuse. In journalism, which uses fallible human beings to cover the words and deeds of other human beings under crushing deadlines and often rushed or stressful circumstances, make plenty of mistakes. But The Washington Post is one of the country's most presitgious institutions in journalism -- and its expertise and overwhelming focus is on government and process. It knows the budget or any other piece of legislation isn't approved by Congress until both chambers pass the same measure.

The current American Journalism Review sheds some light on what ails the Post and doubtless happens in newsrooms across the country. Copy editors, who write headlines as well as act as the last step in a quality control chain, are disappearing, and many of those left are less experienced. And experience and judgment are what counts in this business. Several years ago, when homeland security was at the top of the nation's collective mind, a junior CNN producer doing some fill-in work rushed breathlessly on the air to announce that the Justice Department was adding a new color to the color-coded alert system. She'd taken a joke from a department PR person and turned it into a "breaking news" bulletin -- and other producers and editors didn't ask the handful of questions of her that would have prevented it.

Copy editors aren't the only ranks being reduced in newsrooms. The same issue of AJR reports that newspapers are cutting back drastically on coverage of state capitals. That's especially bad news. Because coverage of legislatures is often seen as dull, local television news rarely pays much attention, so coverage falls to newspapers. State government may seem dull but it affects the daily lives in real-world ways of everyone in a state. State capitals can also be cauldrons of corruption. They are bound to boil over if those inclined to use their power to enrich themselves and their buddies know they aren't being watched.

What happens in budget crunches and during cutbacks is that newspapers and others grab for low-hanging fruit. And there is nothing more low-hanging than speculative political analysis of the sort that fills up hours and hours of cable news time. But do people ever stop and think about what is actually being said? Take this bit of analysis on the very close special election for a House seat in New York by Michael Barone, a usually very astute and knowledgable follower of politics.

Barone uses hundreds of words and tons of numbers in a fancy chart to begin making the case that absentee ballots could tilt the election to Democrats. But then he starts to knock his own theory and says Republicans could have the upperhand Finally, he decides, "There's no real way to know until the votes are counted." No kidding. Maybe Barone could have better used his time hanging around state lawmakers and figuring out what they were up to.