The media often covers the business of the media. One area of enormous change in mass media over the last 30 years has been the virtual death of the traditional American newspaper, which has critically important implications for American understanding of, and awareness of what the government does. Depending on how old you are, you have a different view of the value of the newspaper and, understandably so. If you came of age during the last 20 years, when coverage had already begun to change, you probably wonder what all the fuss is about when older folks lament falling subscription rates and the loss of quality coverage. If you are older, and you remember more traditional newspaper journalism (local papers that included a daily, two-page spread of current events during the state legislative session, for example) you understand what has been lost. Newspapers were available on every corner, every grocery store, or were delivered to our doorsteps.
Certainly we can find news online but the big difference is, you need to know where to look for it. You have to have a computer, a comfort-level with the Internet, and first-hand trust in the credibility of the author (since no one really regulates news content on the Internet, nor have Internet news producers yet devised ways of keeping each other honest through shared codes of ethics). As a result, what stops any of us from only reading the news sources and stories that already agree with our preconceived notion of what is right? Unless presented with both sides of an issue, a tenet of traditional journalism, it is human nature to seek out only the information that does not produce dissonance. In mass communication theory, this is called Uses and Gratifications and it is simply what we do when faced with news product choices.
Newspapers have their origins in Europe before there was a United States. Early American newspapers kept colonists informed of events in Europe as well as the latest updates on tension with Britain. If not for intentional manipulation of that coverage, the early colonial government probably could not have rallied a disparate and far-flung mass of colonists to fight (and win) against the British Empire. The same was true for the French and Indian Wars and the Civil War.
By the industrial revolution, the American newspaper came of age and many more Americans were literate and could vote. During the muck-raking years (1900-1912) newspaper journalists turned a critical eye on the wealthy and abuses of government power, serving the needs of the people. It was also during this time that journalists took on codes of ethics and commitments to reduce bias in reporting. By the 1930s, there were hundreds of papers in most large cities, printed in multiple languages, keeping everyone informed of politics, government, scandal, changes to laws, where to vote, and the location of the community pot-luck.
Pew Center and The Council for Excellence in Government’s 2003 report “Government: In and out of the news” examined government news coverage patterns over approximately 30 years. In that review, coverage of national government news decreased 39% between 1981 and 2001. The tone of government news stories has also changed, with rates of positive stories ranging from 26% for the executive branch to a high of 37% for the judicial. At a time when a great deal of federal responsibility has devolved to state and local government, the coverage patterns of local government news is virtually unknown, but the similar demise of local newspapers suggests a similar fate. Other things have contributed to this landscape: non-local, corporate ownership of newspapers focused on profit; changes in media coverage laws that allow for one-sided reporting; and a growing lack of interest in newspapers by readers.
As public administrators, it is important that we consider the implications of the demise of traditional news. In the past, information about what government does in communities was a common good and was a part of the information environment, but this is no longer the case. Public leaders will need to consider new ways of getting the news of their good work to the public.
Anita Larson, Research Fellow and Doctoral Student, St. Paul, Minnesota