Is our president a Muslim? Of course not. But rather than state the obvious, news outlets spent the summer ballyhooing polls, surveys and interviews that reveal 25 percent of Americans may be, at best, benighted, and, at worst, bespelled by malevolent pundits, politicos and talk-show hosts. Journalists reported this story as if it were legitimate news. Instead they could do their real job—informing the public in service of the democratic process by tracking down the roots of this canard and explaining whose interests are served by its circulation. Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette gives some helpful context.
How big will Republicans win in November? According to the news media, the midterm election is the hottest race since Secretariat won the Triple Crown. But casting the upcoming vote as win or lose referendum on the president, the Democrats or even the Tea Party misses the forest for the trees. What are Americans most worried about? Why do so many seem more concerned about local mosques than shuttered factories, home foreclosures and failing public schools? Instead of sniggering coverage of the Democrats' imminent demise, journalists could deliver some on-the-ground reporting on what's at stake for voters. The Washington Post has some places to start.
How soon will the Mideast talks fail? Ever since Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu shook hands at the White House, the press corps has been handicapping the collapse of the peace process. In a clarifying interview, JJ Goldberg, a senior columnist for The Forward (full disclosure: also a friend) suggested that instead of treating this latest meet-up as the same-old, same-old, reporters would do well to look at the context for current talks and the changes made by both sides over the past 30-plus years.
These cases all reek of the misguided assumptions and outmoded protocols of a flailing industry. It's easy to forget that a good story well told is drama enough. Reporters don't set out to tell misleading stories or to sensationalize the news, but the industry's current logic of hits, clicks and eyeballs can bend coverage. Similarly, newsrooms' valorization of an antiquated and questionable notion objectivity—source A cries foul, source B says fair, file your copy and move on—produces seemingly even-handed coverage that tends to favor the party with the biggest megaphone and/or the deepest pockets.
Finally, news, by definition, is what's new this minute. But the present is shaped by the past—a fact trumped by shrinking news holes and short attention spans. As an alternative to ignoring the impact of what's gone before, JJ Goldberg suggested that news outlets reporting on the current Mideast peace talks use graphics and time-lines to illuminate the conflict's history and illustrate how the two sides' positions have changed over time.
In a recent interview, Jay Rosen, NYU journalism professor and press critic, summed up the news industry's biggest problem: “Change is too expensive; the status quo is unsustainable.” Maybe so, but sweeping pronouncements don't allow for the possibilities of small interventions. Graphics, interpretative journalism and shoe leather won't solve all the industry's problems, but they can help journalists find a way forward.