on journalism’s failings

When Brad Plumer interviewed me about my new book for Vox, he seized on this point:

For a journalist, few things make better headlines than a good resource crisis. Which is why reporters writing about water issues in the American West are often attracted to the prospect of apocalypse — that the region is going to run out of water someday….

It’s a sexy story. But it’s not always an entirely accurate story. As longtime water reporter John Fleck argues in his thought-provoking new book, Water Is for Fighting Over, the constant doom and gloom about water in the West misses something extremely important that’s been going on in recent years. Even in the face of scarce water and apocalyptic fears, communities have managed to adapt and thrive in surprising ways.

It was clear to me in the waning years of my 30-year career in journalism that my business incentivized the delivery of bad news, creating a deep bias toward a what my friend and colleague Melinda Harm Benson calls the “tragedy narrative”.

Benson is writing (see here for example) about environmental discourse (as am I in my book) but this generalizes. It is even more clear to me after nearly two years outside the newsroom bubble how pervasive the problem is. And last week’s election shows how destructive those misleading narratives can be.

David  Borenstein and Tina Rosenberg capture this in a piece in this morning’s New York Times:

Crime is, in fact, at unusual levels, but it’s unusually low levels — close to the lowest rate in 45 years. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than their native-born peers and twice as likely to start businesses. In many parts of the country, the public institutions that people count on every day like schools and hospitals have improved, thanks to a wide range of reforms and initiatives. In the past few years, there have also been steady gains in employment and wages.

This goes far beyond the environmental sphere Benson and I write about.

The effect on the social fabric has been corrosive. Since the early 1970s, surveys conducted annually have revealed that trust and confidence in virtually all American institutions — government, corporations, banks, medicine, education, organized religion and, yes, the press — have been declining steadily.

The blame does not lie solely with journalists. Audiences are at fault too. The incentives here are important. But journalists must hold themselves to a higher standard, which is truth, not clicks.

This is journalism’s greatest failing.



  1. Hi John and all. There is a huge difference between journalists and MSM, Main Stream Media. One must differentiate between the two. True journalists are still doing an outstanding job, the MSM not so much chasing headlines. Unfortunately as dollars and jobs are pulled from the good journalists, we’re left with what we read. Support journalism local on up. Greg

  2. I agree that the problem is bigger than the USA and older than Google Ads. In the 1990s respectable papers already had obsessive daily coverage of celebrity trials and small disasters in distant countries, and printed columnists who had been consistently wrong for decades. Figuring how to fund useful (“will this help me make better decisions?”), healthy (“will this make me less anxious?”) journalism is a hard problem.

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