by Dale Willman
Failing the News Mission
What is news?
Years ago, a woman at a Ross Perot gathering complained that it was the responsibility of the network where I worked to tell her all she needed to know to be an informed citizen. This was her definition of news. I explained that this would be a logistical impossibility – I worked for CBS at the time, and our evening newscast had just 18 minutes of news, hardly enough time to give her the world as she wanted it. But most news people I know operate under some form of that definition – that our job is to provide enough news to make people better informed citizens.
Sadly we are failing, and that does not bode well for environmental coverage.
The latest indication of this failure came as the Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual State of the News Media 2006 report. As part of its analysis, the report examined one day of news across multiple news platforms. And it found a drastically narrowing definition by most news providers of what is now considered to be news (see related story, this issue).
Most striking was the report's findings concerning news on the Internet. The brave new world of ones and zeros has been heralded by some as the savior of news, because of its vastness and seemingly unlimited capacity for information. So here is a reality check from that same report: "Google News ... offers consumers access to some 14,000 stories from its front page, yet on this day they were actually accounts of the same 24 news events." And Google News is the top news aggregator on the web.
For traditional broadcast news outlets meanwhile, the narrowing meant even more stories involving car crashes and crime. That's not news to anyone who watches local television, of course. The maxim "if it bleeds it leads" is no longer a parody.
Newspapers fare much better in the analysis and come the closest to the traditional definition of news.
Yet the report still finds that for all news platforms, "Few of what would emerge as the top stories this day would be remembered months later – or even, a search of databases reveals, get much coverage within a day or two." In other words, we're reporting on the ephemeral, not the significant.
So where does all this leave the environment? Environmental stories received scant coverage during the day-long examination – just two stories on climate change, and one of those was carried by PBS. And if the definition of what is news keeps collapsing, you can expect to see even less environmental coverage.
According to the report, "Journalism has always leaned toward the transitory and incremental over the systematic – news that breaks rather than news that bends." And it appears from this report the trend toward less substance, which began a couple of decades ago, is continuing.
As many environmental journalists are fond of saying, environmental news doesn't break, it oozes. So in a world where the expediency of a car crash trumps the significance of public policy, the environment loses.
It's not clear just how to change this situation. The trend has been a long one and won't be changed simply by the willpower of a few environmental reporters clamoring for a bigger news hole. But if our goal remains to help people become better-informed citizens, as that woman suggested, then we need to pay attention to what this report is telling us. And it shows it's time to get back to the old definition of news.
Sometimes older really is better. This is one of those times.
Dale Willman is Executive Director of Field Notes Productions in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Updated: April 2006
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