Monday, March 13, 2006

Bigger Playing Field, Narrower Goalposts

Today's NYT spotlights a newly-released study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism that finds an unusually narrow conception of "the news" among an ever-expanding league of journalistic and quasi-journalistic outlets. On a single randomly-chosen day (March 11, 2005), the thousands of cable, broadcast, radio, and the Internet channels reviewed were observed to cover pretty much the same two dozen news stories. Unsurprisingly, the cable networks treated the news most superficially, while newspapers generally surpassed other media in both breadth and depth of coverage ("though perhaps in language and sourcing tilted toward elites," the authors hedged). Bloggers continued to buoy news items outside the MSM's purview, but for the most part offered perspective and interpretation in lieu of original reporting—confirming that their relationship is still largely dependent upon the legwork of traditional news organizations.

So much for the democratization of the media, I suppose. The Project's findings line up with the established literature on agenda-setting, which indicates that the largest journalistic enterprises will tend to dictate the terms of public debate regardless of the playing field's size. Adding more voices to an already cacophonous media arena will do little good if those voices are not empowered. It'd be great if the entrenched news players could start pushing for more internal pluralism, integrating more than just the standard "objective" reporting style with which fewer and fewer news consumers seem to be satisfied these days. They're gonna have to figure something out, because ad competition from new-media giants like Google and Craigslist along with the fact that young people by and large simply don't read the paper or watch the news anymore have been squeezing profit margins for years now.