This is something I know a bit about, having been a reporter for a dozen years before I jumped the fence to nonprofit public relations in 2001. Both sides make some legitimate points, but both miss the big picture.
In a world of shrinking attention spans matched by shrinking newsroom staffs and budgets, the news media do have a bias: They’re biased in favor of the familiar, the obvious, and the easy-to-get. Stories that require digging – ferreting out unfamiliar sources or doing serious research to figure out the reality underlying the canned sound bites – are in danger of being put on the endangered species list.
Some years back I worked for an organization that occasionally needed to respond to scientific studies. I discovered to my horror that the vast majority of mainstream news stories about new research are written by people who have never read the study in question, just the press release put out by whoever conducted or sponsored it. That’s not a great way to find out if the study has weaknesses.
That pattern repeats in other areas. Reporters too often stick to familiar sources and surface-level reporting: Politician X puts out a statement about the budget; if you get a response from Politician Y and Academic Z and you’ve got a story. What’s missing is context, depth and detail. In practice, that often means that the voices of communities of color, lower-income Americans and others who aren’t solidly entrenched in reporters’ electronic rolodexes don’t get into the story.
Happily, there are exceptions. The ethnic media and other outlets rooted in specific communities regularly highlight angles and points of view that the mass media miss. And a few outlets still do serious, dig-under-the-surface reporting.
One that’s definitely worth checking out is Remapping Debate — and not just because they quoted our fabulous health policy director, Carla Saporta, in an article earlier this year. They regularly poke around the dark corners of the news, like a recent series of stories on the revolving door between Capitol Hill and lobbying groups—naming names, for example, of the 43 staffers for new members of Congress who used to work for lobbying firms.
One fascinating thing Remapping Debate does each month is delve into the official unemployment statistics and produce a series of interactive graphs that look at specific groups in the population. For example, I bet you didn’t see on the evening news that, while the overall unemployment rate has been inching down for a few years, in February , for black, non-Hispanic men aged 16-25 without a high school diploma, the unemployment rate was well over 50 percent, “the highest it has been since at least 2006.”
These guys are doing amazing stuff, and more people should know about them.