Good journalism’s demand ‘problem’

November 18, 2008

Columbia Journalism ReviewThe Columbia Journ­al­ism Review takes on a famil­i­ar tropethe scarcity of atten­tion — and riffs on it in rela­tion to journ­al­ism.

Attention—our most pre­cious resource—is in increas­ingly short sup­ply. To win the war for our atten­tion, news organ­iz­a­tions must make them­selves indis­pens­able by pro­du­cing journ­al­ism that helps make sense of the flood of inform­a­tion that inund­ates us all.

Atten­tion, with respect to Her­bert Simon, is not scarce. It is a con­stant.

It’s just man­aged in ways that read­ers of the Columbia Journ­al­ism Review may find dis­ap­point­ing.

Con­trary to the earn­est claims made, the cur­rent news media offers many quick and easy solu­tions for any­one suf­fer­ing from ‘inform­a­tion over­load.’ Matt Drudge has carved an online niche offer­ing exactly that. Tra­di­tion­al tele­vi­sion news­casts have long offered anoth­er ver­sion. Time and New­s­week yet anoth­er. There are plenty of fil­ters for people who want their inform­a­tion ‘filtered.’

The ques­tion is why they should want the stuff in the first place.

So IMHO, the CJR piece is a typ­ic­al, well-researched, arse-about-face piece of think­ing on why people both­er to pick up polit­ic­al and pub­lic policy inform­a­tion.

Increase in the sup­ply of news does not mean increas­ing pub­lic know­ledge of pub­lic affairs, or polit­ic­al par­ti­cip­a­tion, for reas­ons Anthony Downs out­lined back in 1957, in An Eco­nom­ic The­ory of Demo­cracy — there are no incent­ives.

After all, why can’t you buy For­eign Affairs at the super­mar­ket counter? And why are elites so irrit­at­ingly well-informed?

It’s because super­mar­ket shop­pers lack incent­ives to gain expert­ise in for­eign policy, and because elites get social value from being ‘in the loop,’ and because they hon­estly believe — hey, they are elites! — that they can use the inform­a­tion they acquire.

No one in journ­al­ism has bothered listen­ing to Downs, and journ­al­ists still act amazed when people don’t soak up vin­eg­ar like wine.

Look at the recent example of India,and its much-vaunted news media explo­sion. How does an India com­ment­at­or view the impact of the growth in news on the polit­ic­al pro­cess?

There is little doubt that the grow­ing num­ber of tele­vi­sion news chan­nels as well as news­pa­pers have provided wider and deep­er cov­er­age of elec­tions. But how has the media boom impacted a crit­ic­al aspect of demo­cra­cies: voter turnout?

A look at voter turnout trends in the last four Par­lia­ment elec­tions and also data on voter turnout in some assembly elec­tions, includ­ing Del­hi, Uttar Pra­desh and the most recent elec­tions held in Karnataka, viewed in light of sharp increases in tele­vi­sion audi­ences and news­pa­per read­ers dur­ing the same peri­od leads to one start­ling con­clu­sion: There appears to be very low cor­rel­a­tion between Indi­an voter turnout and grow­ing media—and pre­sum­ably information—sources.

So enough with the sup­ply-side non­sense. This is a demand-side prob­lem. People need incent­ives to acquire the polit­ic­al stuff, and if you want to incentiv­ize them you have to also grapple with the con­sequences of a more informed pub­lic (just ask a doc­tor).

If you’re an optim­ist, you might agree with Paul Krug­man’s explan­a­tion for the gen­er­al lous­i­ness of Brit­ish food before the 1990s. Krug­man observed:

[A] free-mar­ket eco­nomy can get trapped for an exten­ded peri­od in a bad equi­lib­ri­um in which good things are not deman­ded because they have nev­er been sup­plied, and are not sup­plied because not enough people demand them.

The journ­al­ism ana­logy? Edu­cated news pal­ates will bring a taste for meat­i­er cov­er­age.

But if you’re a pess­im­ist you might take the view of the edit­or of Britain’s Daily Mail, Paul Dacre:

[I]f mass-cir­cu­la­tion news­pa­pers, which, of course, also devote con­sid­er­able space to report­ing and ana­lys­is of pub­lic affairs, don’t have the free­dom to write about scan­dal, I doubt wheth­er they will retain their mass cir­cu­la­tions with the obvi­ous wor­ry­ing implic­a­tions for the demo­crat­ic pro­cess.

And — by the way — being an aca­dem­ic, I’m neither optim­ist nor pess­im­ist. What about you?

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