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A devastating commentary on basic American news reporting

COMMENTARY | December 13, 2010

David Cay Johnston writes that beat reporting in America is crumbling and he cites “cheap news”--that is, stories and beats covered on the cheap--as a main reason. Johnston’s comments appear in the Winter 2010 issue of Nieman Reports, most of which is devoted to beat reporting.

By David Cay Johnston

To understand how badly we’re doing the most basic work of journalism in covering the law enforcement beat, try sitting in a barbershop. When I was getting my last haircut, the noon news on the television—positioned to be impossible to avoid watching—began with a grisly murder. The well-educated man in the chair next to me started ranting about how crime is out of control.

But it isn’t. I told Frank, a regular, that crime isn’t running wild and his chance of being burglarized today is less than one quarter what it was in 1980. (Upon further checking, I learned that the chance of getting burglarized today is actually 42.5 percent of what it was in 1980.)  The shop turned so quiet you could have heard a hair fall to the floor had the scissors not stopped. The barbers and clients listened intently as I next told them about how the number of murders in America peaked back in the early 1990’s at a bit south of 25,000 and fell to fewer than 16,000 in 2009. When we take population growth into account, this means your chance of being murdered has almost been cut in half.

“So why is there so much crime on the news every day?” Diane, who was cutting Frank’s hair, asked.

“Because it’s cheap,” I replied. “And with crime news you only have to get the cops’ side of the story. There is no ethical duty to ask the arrested for their side of the story.”

Cheap news is a major reason that every day we are failing in our core mission of providing people with the knowledge they need for our democracy to function. Barry Glassner, in an important book every journalist should read, tells us how cheap news badly done spreads false beliefs and racial distrust. It’s been a decade since he came out with “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.” By my sights, the problems Glassner described have gotten worse, much worse.

Does Anybody Care?

Beats are fundamental to journalism, but our foundation is crumbling. Whole huge agencies of the federal government and, for many news organizations, the entirety of state government go uncovered. There are school boards and city councils and planning commissions that have not seen a reporter in years. The outrageous salaries that were paid to Bell, California city officials—close to $800,000 to the city manager, for example—would not have happened if just one competent reporter had been covering that city hall in Southern California. But no one was, and it took an accidental set of circumstances for two reporters from the Los Angeles Times to reveal this scandal.

Four decades ago when I covered local government meetings in Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury, I always asked for copies of the agency budget. In those days, before spread- sheets or the first pocket calculator had been invented, I did long division in the margins to figure out trends and how the taxpayers’ money was being spent. It not only relieved the tedium of the meetings I sat through, but it produced story after story after story that engaged readers and at times infuriated officials while protecting the public purse.

Increasingly what I see are news reports evidencing a basic lack of knowledge about government. And this isn’t happening just with beat reporters but with the assignment and copy editors who are supposed to review stories before they get into print or on the air.

In the first 10 months of this year, a Nexis database search shows, newspapers and wire services reported more than 1,700 times that juries, grand or petite, handed down indictments and verdicts. Sometimes I pick up the phone and call reporters whose stories contain this incredibly dumb mistake and politely try to educate them. Perhaps it’s obnoxious, but somebody needs to do it.

Some reporters ask me what difference it makes. A few have insisted that down is correct. Really, I ask. Even if people have never been in the courtroom, they would know from movies and television that the judge sits in the highest position and therefore juries hand up while judges hand down. When I’ve asked reporters and some editors how many votes are needed for a jury to convict, I’ve sometimes gotten back cautious, slow or wrong answers. And it’s not a trick question. If any reporter doesn’t instantly know this answer, then alarms should sound and training should promptly commence.

Far too much of journalism consists of quoting what police, prosecutors, politicians and publicists say—and this is especially the case with beat reporters. It’s news on the cheap and most of it isn’t worth the time it takes to read, hear or watch. Don’t take my word for it. Instead look at declining circulation figures. People know value and they know when what they’re getting is worth their time or worth the steadily rising cost of a subscription.

Less for More

I also am board chairman and part owner of a very small business—we manage a small hotel—that follows a different customer policy than newspapers do. Every year the three papers I subscribe to cut quality and raise prices. When we charge our guests more, we give them something more—nicer shampoo, fluffier towels—and we tell them about the new benefit. Why should we think people would pay more for less and do so repeatedly?

One day a decade or so ago when Amtrak said my Metroliner would be delayed at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I ran upstairs and bought The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I worked for seven years. Buried inside I found a half column about the new budget for Montgomery County, the wealthiest and most important county for the newspaper’s financial success. The story was mostly about the three commissioners yelling at each other. The total budget was mentioned, almost in passing, with no hint of whether it meant property taxes would go up or down, more money would be spent on roads or less, or any of the other basics that readers want to know.

For this I paid money? I could only imagine the reaction of the residents of Montgomery County.

This problem is not with the break-down in the centuries-old economic model, a simple model that many journalists do not really understand. Connecting buyers and sellers who are in search of one another pays the bills. What draws them is a desire to find out that which is important but that they did not know. We call this information the news.

Far too much of what we produce today is already widely known. We fill so many pages with rehashed or known information that on many days these publications could properly be called oldspapers. It’s not like there isn’t important and revealing news all around us. There is. It’s just that we seem swept up in a herd mentality with too narrow a focus and too much eagerness to rely on what sources tell us rather than asking these same people to address important facts that lie in plain sight in the public record.

Much of what passes for reporting about government these days is not only information that is useless, it is laughable nonsense, and I have the coffee stains on my robe to prove it. Every morning I read “Beat the Press” on the Center for Economic and Policy Research website, which is liberal economist Dean Baker’s critique of the economic theory, policy and “facts” he finds on the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other media outlets. Baker routinely picks apart articles that are as far from reality as a weather story that says the sun rose in the West.

Sometimes I send these criticisms on to the ombudsman or top editors of the offending publications. I have even put together packages showing from the newspaper’s own clips that what was printed is utterly false. But I rarely see any corrections made nor any insistence that writers actually know what they are writing about when it comes to government policy, economic policy, taxes or treaties.

During the past 15 years as I focused my reporting on how the American economy works and the role of government in shaping how the benefits and burdens of the economy are distributed, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed at the superficial and often dead wrong assumptions permeating the news. Every day in highly respected newspapers I read well-crafted stories with information that in years past I would have embraced but now know is nonsense, displaying a lack of understanding of economic theory and the regulation of business. The stories even lack readily available official data on the economy and knowledge of the language and principles in the law, including the Constitution.

What these stories have in common is a reliance on what sources say rather than what the official record shows. If covering a beat means finding sources and sniffing out news, then a firm foundation of knowledge about the topic is essential, though not sufficient. Combine this with a curiosity to dig deeply into the myriad of documents that are in the public record—and then ask sources about what the documents show.

Posted by Jeremy Kohler
12/15/2010, 10:56 AM

That's half the story. The other half is that crime journalism has never been more nuanced as it is today. Go back and read the cops coverage from any 1980s metro paper and you're going to see "comma police said in every lede." Today's crime journalists are far more likely to challenge the official line.

You can't blame journalists for covering murders. To ignore it is to accept it. So if a guy in your barber shop is shaking his head saying there is too much crime -- he's right.

Retired newspaper reporter
Posted by John Painter Jr.
12/15/2010, 01:35 PM

I spent almost 40 years working for a big city daily...and a lot of that covering crime and courts, and was a Nieman Fellow.

But this is about the use of experts. Reporters are supposed to use experts. We are not supposed to have expertise in brain surgery, ballistics, aeronautics and an array of other topics. So, we logically pick the brains of those who know. Otherwise we are at risk of writing it wrong.

And to make an issue of handing up or down is nothing but nitpicking.

And what in the hell does a delayed Amtrak train have to do with the Montgomery County budget?

I just don't get the point. To be sure, there are sloppy reporters, but they aren't representative of the entire trade.

And I thinking working reporters shouldn't waste their time responding to this bluster.

"laughable nonsense", Propaganda, or is it Subversion of Government?
Posted by Thinking
12/18/2010, 12:37 AM

Also, reporters need to compare the activity of both Government and the Governed to the requirements of Law, controlling Regulations, and The Rules of Order.

Reporting only the Official Record or comments without investigation can be presenting Propaganda.

When this is done with intent to not expose the corruption of Law and Process it is Subversion of Government.

Today at best those who refer to Corruption of Process or Law say, ”the process was not transparent”.

Please report it as it is, an illegal activity, THEY BROKE THE LAW.

30 years in newspaper journalism
Posted by Bill
12/20/2010, 07:45 AM

It's petit, not petite, jury.
I've gone round and round with papers as DCJ describes about erroneous reporting and usually get nowhere.
Afflict the comfortable and comfort that afflicted: That's my motto, along with spread light, not heat.
Mainstream media are in bed with government and corporate elites. Witness Dan Rather, once an admirable antagonist, asking George W. Bush to tell him where to line up after 9/11. It did Rather no good. He was taken down after reporting the Bush Air Guard story, the substance of which was never refuted.
The landscape is bleak.

Posted by David Cay Johnston
01/07/2011, 07:21 PM

@ Bill, Thanks for that catch. Of course it is "petit" and not "petite," an error which I have traced back to relying on spellchecker and then not carefully proof reading. A good reminder about over reliance on technology.

@ John Painter Jr., I think reporters should become as knowledgeable as possible about what they cover. They may not become experts, but it would be a good thing if they did. And they should at least learn the basic theory underlying whatever issue they cover.

@Jeremy Kohler, yes there is a lot more nuanced crime coverage today, but the one-sided "police said" story still predominates, especially on TV.

And far too few reports on crime stats refer to reported crime, an important distinction that both David Burnham and David Anderson worked hard to get reporters to appreciate.

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