Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Are Consultants To Local News As Lobbyists Are To Government?

I am currently reading Tom Fenton's recent book on the media, Bad News, which my mother-in-law gave me as a Christmas present.

Among the several reasons that Fenton gives for the bad condition of news reporting, one stood out to me as most relevant from a hyper-local perspective. According to Fenton:
Nowadays, instead of using their best news judgment, television executives hire consultants who go from station to station peddling their version of what they think the public wants. Sanford Socolow ... describes how it all started under a "news consultant" named Frank Magid. Magid, he says, "gave advice to local news station--on the acceptability of on-air person, on what kinds of stories to air. He used to tell them not to bother covering city hall because it was boring." Out of that philosophy, Socolow observes, came a new maxim: "If it bleeds, it leads."
Perhaps the influence of consultants explains why so much of what we see and read in the local media has little to do with what actually happens in the neighborhoods and the halls of local governance. Like the abuses associated with lobbying the legislature, maybe the shortcomings of news reporting are due to short-cuts to higher ratings associated with outside consultants.

It actually takes sensationalism to get media attention perhaps because it will only lead if it bleeds. What comes afterwards does not seem to be any in-depth study and reportage, beyond mere fluff. The air time left over seems to be devoted to retreads of national news. Just as the ethics of governance have been eroded by legislators' ties to lobbyists, so the standards of journalism have been chipped away by consultants focused on issues peripheral to reporting the news.

The consequences can be dire. Al Qaeda was ignored, despite some reporters' best efforts, until 9/11. And, according to Fenton, news outlets in the months after 9/11 did not change, but simply went back to their pursuit of ratings above information. Local news sources also ignore hyper-local events at the peril of local neighborhoods and eventually the larger local community. I cannot help but think that the whole Sylvan Park mess over conservation zoning could have been mitigated by the television and print media doing some research into the problem months beforehand and by their tipping people off about the dynamics as well as the reality of the strife, rather than simply reacting as it blew up in the Planning Commission and in Council chambers.

We have had an on-going gang problem in Salemtown, but has any serious research or in-depth coverage of the problem been pursued by the local news media? None that I'm aware of. One of these days if things blow up, the local media will react just as it has with recent knowledge of inappropriate student-teacher relationships: figuratively scratching its head and wondering how so many reports of possible criminal behavior are coming in from no where. The stories didn't come from no where, it's just that the local news media was no where to be found as the stories were developing before they emerged.

Fenton's argument that news outlets have stopped being the early detection and warning systems they used to be holds here in Nashville. I detect little indepth investigation into latent community problems before they start festering into full-blown crises. Our local news seems prone to the same sensationalism that creates complacency among journalists when it comes to making potential, but ostensibly uninteresting local problems interesting by showing the audience why they are relevant. According to Fenton, we can thank the consultants for that.

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