Hey, journalists: This is a very, very dangerous time for you. Know it. Be careful.
Jonathan Bernstein, in his recent Salon piece about slow media months and hyped scandal.
What academic research tells us is that slow news days create scandals. That’s what Brendan Nyhan and other media researchers have found; indeed, Nyhan believes that the lack of scandal during Barack Obama’s first two years in the White House was caused, at least in part, by a series of very eventful news cycles. The mechanism, obviously, is that if there’s no major news, then minor news fills the hole, and if there’s no minor news, then we’ll hear plenty about stuff that if you squint just the right way might sort of pass for news.
Granted, newspapers and cable news networks can’t just shut down until the real news starts up again, and some of this is inevitable, but a little self-skepticism is probably a good antidote to the understandable impulse to hype whatever you’ve got.
FJP: Bernstein gives us a rundown of news stories the world is waiting on right now to break, such as what’s next for the Eurozone, and the upcoming but not quite there yet presidential election in the U.S. But here is the important part. He also gives some suggestions on what reporters can do to avoid meaningless reporting and spend this summer digging out the good stuff.
First of all: Be aware. That gaffe that you think is election-changing? Probably going to be forgotten in three weeks. That story that seems just perfect to fill a slow news day? Wait a second – where did it come from, and does whoever produced it know that you’re just itching for something good to cover today? Granted, newspapers and cable news networks can’t just shut down until the real news starts up again, and some of this is inevitable, but a little self-skepticism is probably a good antidote to the understandable impulse to hype whatever you’ve got.
Second: substance, substance, substance. The candidates really do have positions on issues of public policy. They really would enact them if elected. Some of those are, I promise, about things that will affect readers and viewers in fascinating ways. You’re not going to be able to fit much of that in once the fall campaign starts; between polling (much more meaningful then, by the way), and charges and countercharges, and whatever other real news is out there. This is a great time to get a little substance reporting in. Hey, another advantage: It’ll pay off for reporters who actually know the issues in the fall.
And one more: Can I recommend … House and Senate elections? That’s almost 500 elections; add the governors, statewide and local propositions, and even some other down-ballot races, and you have a ton to work with. Any reporter who can’t find a number of fascinating stories in all of that isn’t worth much. Bonus: They’re actually important. More important, certainly, than Ann Romney’s hobbies or whether Democratic back seat drivers are happy with the direction of Barack Obama’s campaign.
Nyhan’s study is an interesting read too, and you can see it here. We look forward to a scandal-free summer, journalists.