August 25, 2003

Can you hear the buzz?…

Michael D’Antonio discusses some of the changes in the practice of journalism over the past 30 years and reasons journalists have lost public respect. Because we live in an age of soundbites, in which the audience is spared compound and complex sentences in favor of short declarations, caused perhaps by the rapid episodic nature of electronic mediation, those of us who write for public audiences must often summarize trends in short phrases; I’ll do so in a word. The problem could be called “buzz.”

Buzz is the what’s-being-said of current events. Not facts. Not careful observations. Buzz is the “street” of an issue. How did we come to a state of affairs where buzz is treated as news? D’Antonio suggests one starting point could be the Gary Hart affair of 1988, in which mainstream media first reported his affair with Donna Rice based on tabloid reports rather than original, mainstream reporting. That led to a change in journalistic procedure:

Television and newspapers would report what the tabloids were saying if their news executives thought those tabloid reports were affecting their subjects.

If candidate X were discussing proposal Y, the press might downplay that politically useful information in favor of allegation Z coming from a supermarket tabloid or tabloid TV show. Why? Because it was “street,” it was “buzz,” it was affecting the candidate (because the mainstream press reported it, but never mind). D’Antonio continues:

Whether those decisions amounted to good or bad journalism is somewhat beside the point. The issue is how readers interpreted this blurring of the lines. They could hardly be faulted if they found it more difficult to distinguish between reporters for major dailies and those writing in the tabloids about two-headed space aliens.

Something bad happens when these lines are blurred:

Viewing this trend, many serious journalists see something ominous. “The values of entertainment have taken over, replacing public service,” says Richard Reeves, author, columnist and former chief political correspondent for the New York Times. “That makes me worry not just about the press, but about the survival of something as basic as the truth.”

Truth, the journalistic kind anyway, is discovered by a process of objective reporting, i.e. a search truth using proven methods that strive for accuracy and fairness. No one escapes his ideological biases. But a process of objectivity at least makes it possible for journalists to demonstrate fidelity to something greater than their individual opinions or political desires.

When journalists report buzz as news they abandon that process of objectivity and turn the news into politically useless infotainment.

I’ve only touched on one aspect of this worthy essay. Go read the whole thing.

7 Responses

  1. Rebecca 

    This essay only scratches the surface of the problem the public has with journalism. There has been much “buzz” about this lately, no doubt brought on by the Pew survey. The idea that the media is not elitist is bogus – how many journos come from less than middle-class backgrounds? As one wag put it, the closest most reporters get to poverty and oppression is a PBS whinefest. “Some say” (can’t remember where I saw this) that those going into journalism are the sorts who want to “change the world” and are activists. These people are not interested in stories that “strive for accuracy and fairness”, or the “process of objectivity”. My current problem with journos is the “unnnamed source” bit, but since I’ve been a newshound since the ’60’s, I have to say that TV news started falling down in the 80’s(at least that is when I first noticed) when anchors/reporters starting attributing “motive” and other unknowables to those in the news. The absolute nadir, IMO, was the Clinton/Lewinsky debacle – I stopped watching TV national news then (l998) and never looked back—not that print media is much better. The Atlantic Monthly has an article in it’s current edition by James Fallows about all this (and other things) where he states:”…TV news changed again, starting in the l970s, through the efforts of, among others, Roone Arledge, of ABC, who made news profitable; Ted Turner, of CNN, who made the news cycle continuous; and Larry King and Gerald Rivera, who merged news and entertainment.” The decline of public trust in media has been a long, slippery slope, and I really don’t see a quick fix.

  2. For more on this decline, I suggest James Fallows’ book “Breaking the News.”

    Journalism was once a working class job. It still was to a limited extent when I went to college with the intention to become a journalist. I think the “activist” angle you mention is accurate to a certain extent–although I don’t think this has quite the nefarious effect (or intention) some people might ascribe to it.

  3. JSteele 

    Could it be that the activist journo’s lose their self-imposed mandate once they realize it’s the editors and owners who determine the story?

    I’ve known a few journalists, and while I agree they are all a bit activist and have an elitist view of themselves, they are all definitely working class folks.

    I haven’t been a “newshound” for long, do y’all think the decline a cyclical thing, or are we on a one-way street?

  4. Carnival of the Vanities #49

    Greetings, ladies and gentlemen

  5. Carnival of the Vanities #49

    Greetings, ladies and gentlemen

  6. Rebecca 

    JSteele, if you are looking for prognostication, you have asked the wrong person – I couldn’t guess a riddle if my life depended on it! But according the James Fallows article cited above, he thinks media will revert to what it was before the late 1800s- that is, more openly partisan, in the European mode.

  7. woud you trust a journalist?

    I have come across this story about journalism by Michael D’Antonio courtesy of Rhetorica. It starts by saying that journalists