The Jurassic media landscape

stateoffearBeing in the media criticism game, I like to read the various ombudsmen and press critics out there. I'm pretty sure Jack Shafer at Slate is my favorite. His criticism is unconventional and thought-provoking. His latest column looks back at novelist Michael Crichton's 1993 prediction that mass media would die within a decade. When the decade came and passed and media remained strong, people thought Crichton misguided. But now that the media giants are faltering, Shafer revisits the issue with Crichton. The interview with Crichton only briefly touches on religion but mainstream media treatment of religion news is, of course, part of this larger story. I'm curious what readers think about Crichton's media analysis and the future of mass media. Do you agree with hm? If so, how do the problems he cites play out in religion news, if at all? Here are a few of the questions from Shafer's Q&A with Crichton:

Do you think the media's factual content and accuracy is up or down from 2002 (when we last corresponded)? Do you still think it's flashy but junk?

Surely you jest. Factual content approaches zero, and accuracy is not even a consideration. I think many younger reporters aren't really sure what it means, beyond spell-checking. And in any case, when the factual content approaches zero, accuracy becomes meaningless.

Why do I say factual content approaches zero? The easiest way is to record a news show and look at it in a month, or to look at last month's newspaper. That pulls you out of the narcotizing flow of what passes for daily news, and you can see more objectively what is actually being presented. Look at how many stories are unsourced or have unnamed sources. Look at how many stories are about what "may" or "might" or "could" happen. Look at how many news stories have opinion frames, i.e., "Obama faced his most challenging personal test today," because in the body you probably won't be told much about what the personal test was, or why it was most challenging (which in any case is opinion). In summary, reliance on unnamed sources means the story is opinion. Might and could means the story is speculation. Framing as I described means the story is opinion. And opinion is not factual content.

At my last job, we had to rely almost exclusively on unnamed sources. We covered the federal bureaucracy and our subjects weren't allowed to speak on the record, for the most part. Or consider how difficult it would be for Jacqui Salmon to write about the Washington National Cathedral layoffs. Fifteen percent of the staff there were laid off but given severance packages conditional on their silence. I think she handled the story really well. but readers should be cautious about the almost complete lack of accountability inherent with the use of anonymous sources. More important is Crichton's first point. I do get the feeling that many reporters don't even know what objective journalism is as a goal. They do view themselves as activists. Remember what Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet said about coverage of the Rev. Michael Pfleger? That the press corps was admiring because they shared his activist tendencies?

Here's another interesting tidbit:

The truth is, we live in an age of astonishing conformity. I grew up in the 1950s, supposedly the heyday of conformity, but there was much more freedom of opinion back then. And as a result, you knew that your neighbors might hold different views from you on politics or religion. Today, the notion that men of good will can disagree has disappeared. Can you imagine! Today, if I disagree with you, you conclude there is something wrong with me. This is a childish, parochial view. And of course stupefyingly intolerant. It's truly anti-American.

If this doesn't describe the ideological ghettoization of the internet, I don't know what would. This is probably one of the main reasons why I support American-style journalism over the European model. It's easy enough for us to all retreat to our communities where everyone agrees with us on everything. I'm astonished at how many people seem to think that their views are held by everyone but the most intolerant freaks (who are, of course, undeserving of respect or acknowledgment). We've been witnessing a bit of that in our discussions of same-sex marriage. A newspaper, by presenting just the facts and showcasing differing viewpoints can do so much to support the community.

Shafer asks Crichton why his prediction that consumers would demand better information has not come true. Crichton says he's perplexed but ties it into the changing nature of the economy:

I have been very interested in the differences between how scientists and engineers treat information, for example. The fact is, engineers are much more rigorous about information, and it has legal consequences for them. In contrast, scientists (and politicians) are just playing with information. Broadly speaking, they have no responsibility for what they say at all. Now, as our society shifts away from manufacturing (now something like 15 percent of workers are engaged in making something), I speculate that this is having an effect on what we regard as information. I speculate we are moving from the rigor of engineers to the free-for-all of politicians. In which case, nobody is interested in high-quality information. It only gets in the way.

It's an interesting hypothesis. What do you think? Is Crichton all wet? Does he tap into why newspapers are facing problems?

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