Winter 2010

It’s Scary Out There in Reporting Land

‘Beats are fundamental to journalism, but our foundation is crumbling.’

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 hisAUTHOR'S NOTE
Upon further checking, I learned that the chance of getting burglarized today is actually 42.5 percent of what it was in 1980.
chance of being burglarized today is less than one quarter 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 RELATED ARTICLE
"Uncovering an Uncovered Story in Bell, California"
- Jonathan Seitz
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 spreadsheets 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 breakdown 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.

David Cay Johnston, while working at The New York Times, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting for his coverage of loopholes and inequities in the U.S. tax code. He is a columnist for Tax Analysts and teaches the law of the ancient world at Syracuse University’s law and graduate business schools. “The Fine Print,” the third book in his series about the American economy, is scheduled to be published in 2011 by Penguin.

18 Comments on It’s Scary Out There in Reporting Land
Marta says:
March 9, 2011 at 6:50pm
Nice column and I agree with most of it. I would add that part of the problem is tracking readers' interest by tracking the clicks on the website. Crime news online gets more clicks than stories about government budgets (unless there's fraud going on at city hall or the state house). Tracking clicks puts increased pressure on editors and reporters to post more stories that drives clicks. That's because the advertisers and ad reps want to know what type of stories get the most page views and they book ad slots on those pages (like the page for local news or the 911 blog.) Regarding jury's handing up or down, I covered cops and courts for years. I never bothered to write that a jury handed up the verdict. That's four words. I prefer to use one strong verb, such as convicted or acquitted. Then I could use the details of the crime to punch up the lede but not be too wordy. Of course, it's a little more complicated when you've got a hung jury. But I hear what you're saying, especially when reporter's can't explain the statistics that goes into DNA comparisons or a reporter or copy editor thinks an empty house was robbed. For Taylor, who is interested in beat reporting, I suggest you join Investigative Reporters and Editors. It's the best $60 you'll spend on your career. Here's a link to their tipsheet for covering City Hall as a beat reporter: People who want to work the cops beat should read Edna Buchanan's The Corpse Had A Familiar Face. Oh yeah, be prepared to starve, drive an old car, and not own a house.
Jane Braaten says:
January 5, 2011 at 9:39am
Great article, and interesting comments. The situation sounds similar to the era of pre-commercial media around the turn of the 19th/20th c., a period of enormous demographic change with accompanying fragmentation of class, niche and language. Few journalists - among them many of the best - were paid at all; their income consisted of the pennies of sympathizers. Handing over journalism to people of mediocre caliber who simply want to make millions, and if they can, billions, is a recipe for disaster that can only go on for so long. Perhaps we're seeing the kind of revolution against manipulation of opinion that has occurred before. The best fly-by-night journalists are the vanguard; a lot depends on their willingness to continue the struggle. It's worth noting again, however, that readers play a role. Americans have tolerated, even cultivated, low standards of literacy and rhetorical talent. The kind of analysis you're talking about is so much mumbo-jumbo to the majority of us. We respond more automatically to stimulation and conflict (polarization), and so commercial journalism seeks out emotional and sentimental triggers and kafuffles. To put things in perspective, it's doubtful that public intellectuals and high-caliber journalism have ever captured a mass audience. It's not like our literacy problem is new. It may be that what's different now is that we are all treated to a spectacle of who our fellow Americans really are. This could be a mind-opening opportunity, although it can feel dreadful to those who care about depth and accuracy.
Logan says:
January 4, 2011 at 5:22pm
David, I am going to join those who say you are wrong about 'handing down' and 'handing up' in a court room. Physical location has nothing to do with. The grand jury hands 'down' its decision as an expression of the ultimate sovereignty of the people. The people are superior, even to the judge, and it is through the grand jury the people express its will. In a monarchy, a jury hands 'up' its decision to the monarch, where the ultimate sovereignty rests. I trust you remember we are a republic, not a monarchy.
Chicago Dyke says:
December 20, 2010 at 6:49am
Edward identifies the problem, but failed to note the reason why it is happening in the manner he describes. which is to say what do newspaper owners of today value? and the answer is: very short term immediate profit, and often personal or shareholder profit, above and often without regard to the health of the news organization itself. while i take issue with his tone about bloggers, he's not wrong that cost cutting at news departments is very much the cause of the decline of investigative journalism. in my opinion, this shift in priority in the minds of newspaper owners is also on purpose; less real journalism means fewer questions about say, the practices on Wall St which created the banking crisis, and the political response (buying up worthless bank assets with taxpayer money and allowing banks to use that money for their own profit in safe investing climates). i've read quite a few reports now about newspaper and magazine ownership who literally have never read the publication they've just bought, and who only see it as something to manipulate briefly before 'cashing out.' i've also read plenty about ideologically motivated people coming to control a publication to suit their own ideological ends. and of collusion between the ownership class; of very wealthy shareholders, high ranking government officials, and the specific production of a certain type of news that keeps americans in the dark about what they (don't) read. the previous administration was quite well know (in certain circles) for just this, meeting with publication and media executives privately for the purpose of massaging the message; i work in education, and i think it's worth noting that for a generation and more, the teaching of critical analysis and awareness of the functions of a free press have been all but absent in most public schools. it's very hard to find the sort of current events; and media analysis social science classes that some of enjoyed when i was in high school, today. there has also been a de-emphasis on reading and an overemphasis on consuming video product as a form of learning,; the introduction of Channel One in classrooms was only a sad beginning. one can also speak of the rise of celebrity reporters and the decline of televised investigative journalism in video news, but that's another long post in and of itself. i am compelled to note not all news-reporting bloggers are lazy; or unskilled. not only have i done some original reporting myself, but i read bloggers who do every day. they are not hard to find, for all most of them are not employed by an established media entity. i will agree that many blogging reporters who do work for a major media outlet are in fact, quite lazy and at times seem unaware of even the fact that google exists.
Amy says:
December 17, 2010 at 3:55am
Lazy reporters and know-nothing editors are a huge problem. I remember being appalled about 10 years ago, when a reporter I inherited thought newsgathering meant looking for possible stories by checking Yahoo Finance news feeds. When I challenged her to beef up her skills - for example, picking up the phone to call experts to determine whether a news release she wanted to write up was viable, and getting more facts to beef up the story - she responded by shrieking that my job was to make her feel good about her work. I'm sure I'm not the only person this has happened to.
Edward Miller says:
December 17, 2010 at 3:12am
Terrific piece, but sadly cheap journalism is exactly what happens when you have newspaper ownership that see no value in hiring and training staff, when the word "inessential" is used to justify laying off entire copy desks and veteran reporters in favor of bloggers and entry-level reporters who don't know an FOI request from a coffee cup, who in turn file stories with few or even no editors to look at them let alone call them out for lazy reporting or inaccuracies. And they are expected to post a story to the web, live-tweet from the place they are covering and then file for deadline for the printed version all while racing to cover something else, and finally the concept that you talk about called the "Beat" doesn't exist anymore at a lot of newsmedia organizations. Reporters are all general news gatherers who aren't assigned to specific beats or bloggers who are only interested in giving their opinion. And having worked as an editor before being told recently that my position as an editor was "inessential" to the newspaper, I can tell you that every year I asked for training time and and money to help staffers get better and every year without exception the first thing to be cut from the budget was "training" and this was at almost every newspaper I worked at in the last 15 years.. It's no wonder that newspaper circulation has gone down. It's a shame to see its decline and the associated symptoms of an uninformed populace.
Jon Greenbaum says:
December 16, 2010 at 2:17pm
I've given up consuming the corporate media (except to keep up on the local news my coworkers will be discussing - but that's really at the level of gossip, isn't it). I get more out of FAIR's Counterspin and Dean Baker's Beat the Press than the actual coverage itself. Keep it coming David.
ChrisInDenver says:
December 16, 2010 at 1:54am
Judith, may I suggest you read journalist Matt Taibbi's terrific article about the ongoing foreclosure mess in America, "Invasion of the Home Snatchers," which appeared in the November issue of Rolling Stone. It's still available online; click the following link to read it. It's my hope that the article will infuriate you -- and anyone else who reads it -- as much as it pissed me off. Taibbi's an excellent journalist, and if you can stomach his penchant for inserting curse words in his articles (I don't mind it), then I believe you'll dig this article.
four legs good says:
December 15, 2010 at 5:53pm
Hear, hear. Thank you for this column.
Taylor Wray says:
December 15, 2010 at 3:02pm
I'm very interested in becoming exactly the type of reporter you're talking about - someone who digs into primary documents, critically questions sources and helps maintain the fourth estate's check on corruption in general. My question is, how do I get a job doing that? Are there simply no more beat reporters now that cheap news is the dominant model? Would I have to be a part-time reporter with another job who simply publishes my articles on the blogosphere somewhere? What do you suggest for young, educated, patriotic Americans like myself who want to turn improve American journalism but don't know where to start?
Morgan Getham says:
December 15, 2010 at 2:06pm
When my parents (both Journalism school grads) moved to a suburban community in the 1940's, my mother (in spite of caring for three small children) took a job writing for the community weekly paper. She covered the city council hearings, over their STRONG objections. After a couple of meetings, she knew why. A couple of weeks later, the whole TOWN knew why. The next election, there was a new city council. Growing up in Texas in the 1950's my dad taught me basic economics and a LOT about politics, especially Washington (where Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson ran Congress). Made me memorize the names of all the cabinet officers and what each department did. He had to tread carefully when it came to local small-town politics though (one of my classmates, for example, was the daughter of the local sheriff). But he KNEW these things thoroughly. Along with the basic principles of nuclear physics, by the way. I learned a lot. Then went into mathematics professionally instead of following him into journalism.
John Dickey says:
December 15, 2010 at 11:57am
Interesting thoughts in the piece. Coincidentally, I hold a bachelor's degree in economics, along with more than 10 years experience as a news reporter, but have been unable to get a job as a business reporter. I guess economics isn't all that important to newspapers.
jim jaffe says:
December 15, 2010 at 11:03am
I'm a big fan of david's and think most of what he says here and elsewhere it not only right, but often wise. that said, I think there's a lot of crime coverage because people are concerned about what they perceive as threats in their neighborhood. If someone is murdered in my zip code, I want to know about it and am worried, irrespective of broader data that shows things are generally getting safer. his analysis of lazy coverage is dead on, but that doesn't begin to explain the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality pioneered by Al Primo and others.
Rich Gardner says:
December 15, 2010 at 9:25am
Yeah, I've been reading Beat the Press for many years. I even wrote to one of the subjects of a story many years back where I essentially asked "Gee, aren't you embarrassed to be continually shown up by Baker in this manner?" I received an answer that was so obviously a stock answer that the reporter clearly just had a copy of it on his computer, put my name on it as the addressee and sent it out to me. I've never bothered to write to any of the subjects since.
MKS says:
December 15, 2010 at 8:45am
Very thoughtful article. The American public has almost always provided a market for shoddy, inaccurate and agitating news. The only solution that I can see is to allow as much freedom of the press as possible, and advocate that people learn to think critically so they can determine which sources provide ethical and thorough journalism. If enough people did that, shoddy sources would lose market share. Perhaps making libel suit decisions very public would help, too.
Howard Owens says:
December 14, 2010 at 9:11pm
When I was a reporter at the Daily Californian in eastern San Diego County I went to more than one meeting of a public body that hadn't seen a reporter in years. My primary beat at first was the City of Santee. The City Manager there hated me. While three newspapers assigned reporters to the beat, none had ever once filed a FOIL request. My first request -- quite by coincidence -- turned up an automobile accident he had been involved in and was at fault, driving a city vehicle. Lazy reporters have long been a problem in journalism. Recent cuts make the problem worse, but don't change the basic, endemic problem in the industry. David, please drive on out to Batavia some afternoon and I'll buy you lunch at one of the great locally owned restaurants we have here and we can talk about cheap journalism and how I've turned the concept into a business model. I think I owe you a lunch anyway.
Paid Heckler says:
December 14, 2010 at 7:45pm
Excellent piece David. I don't know how I would respond if I was in that barber chair. Probably rant about Mcluhan, Xeno, and Bill Hicks.
Judith Nies says:
December 14, 2010 at 4:06pm
Terrific piece. And all too true. For example, I have yet to read an accurate article about how the Home Loan Modification program provoked many unnecessary foreclosures.
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