Why is the news so bad?
I’m not talking about biased news. Yes, there’s bias, and it’s getting worse. But that’s not the issue here.
I’m also not talking about why the news is full of so many evil and horrifying things. Such things have always been around, too, but we often didn’t learn about them. For example, The New York Times covered up Stalin’s mass murder of millions of Ukrainians in the Holodomor, just as the news media have covered up other terrible crimes.
Instead, I’m talking about the quality of the news. Even taking bias into account, why is the news so unreliable?
I don’t have all the answers, but I was a newspaper reporter in Washington, DC in the 1990s. I can tell you about an experience I had that seems relevant.
Because I had done computer programming, I covered computer technology in the government.
In one case, a market research firm had published a report. It said that computer firms had complained about a new government technology standard because it allegedly favored one particular company.
It was a plausible story. Things like that happen. But as a reporter, it was my job to look for facts, not to tell readers what I thought was plausible.
The technology standard itself wasn’t much help, so I started talking to people at the computer companies. I knew some of them socially as well as professionally. Every one of them, both on the record and off the record (privately) told me the same thing: As far as they knew, nobody at their companies had made such an accusation.
So I wrote the article. Its first paragraph reported what the market research firm had said. The rest of the article recounted, with direct quotes, what people at computer companies had said — i.e., that the market research firm was wrong.
And that’s what I handed in to the editor.
Because the details matter, let’s review:
- The market research firm said that
- Computer companies had said that
- The government was favoring one company.
- People at the companies denied saying it.
The editor re-wrote my first paragraph to say that companies had, in fact, accused the government of favoring one company. She provided no evidence that it was true. The rest of my article still consisted of people at the companies saying, “no, we didn’t make that accusation.” So the first paragraph of the article directly contradicted the rest of the article.
That conflict is not rocket science. But it was apparently too subtle for the newspaper’s editor to perceive.
Two weeks later, the editor herself wrote a follow-up article. Her follow-up reported that the original article had said the government was favoring a particular company.
Hello? Any normal person should be able to see the difference between these statements:
- A market research firm reported that companies said X.
- Companies did in fact say X.
- X is true.
Poor news quality results not only from bias, but also from carelessness and incompetence.
In this era of corporate media, people get promoted to editor not because they’re good journalists, but because they’re skillful corporate politicians.
Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the Pulitzer Prize was named, said that the three most important qualities of any news article were “accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy.” Unfortunately, that’s no longer a priority in the news media.