Giving the people what they (might not) want

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Washington Post reporter Michael Shear explains his paper's wall-to-wall coverage of Sarah Palin's new book:

Why do we spend so much time on Palin? And is it too much? Perhaps. There's a danger that we are overdoing it -- four stories in today's paper may have reached that point. On the other hand, there seems to be an insatiable demand from our audience -- liberals and conservatives -- and at the end of the day we have to, and should, respond to that.

Really? There's an "insatiable demand" from Washington Post readers for coverage of Sarah Palin's book? How does the Post know this? The book just came out -- has the paper's switchboard been flooded with demands that for all-Going-Rogue, all the time? Are Post editors getting angry emails insisting that three articles in one day's paper just won't do -- a fourth is absolutely necessary, though still not sufficient?

I doubt that very much.

I don't mean to single Shear out here. You see this kind of thing all the time -- reporters justifying something they can't justify on the merits by asserting public demand they can't (or won't) quantify.

Like when Howard Kurtz defended obsessive cable news coverage of a balloon that was not carrying a little boy by writing "The ratings, forgive me, must have soared." Must have? Well ... Did they? Or when Politico's Mike Allen asserted that "Fox executives are relishing" their recent fight with the White House because "ratings at Fox are through the roof" -- without actually providing the ratings to back up that claim. As Eric Boehlert has explained in detail, Fox's ratings spike is a myth.

It's bad enough when journalists suggest that the news media should simply report what the public to see. That isn't journalism -- and if we go too far down that road, it won't be long before NBC Nightly News consists of nothing more than cat videos and B-list celebrity sex tapes. But it's even more frustrating when they make decisions about what to cover based on baseless assumptions about what the public wants.

And it's how you get a decades-long dumbing-down of the news based on assumptions about viewer preferences that may be completely wrong:

For years, local news producers have led their stations in a race to the bottom, driven by the prevailing belief that "eyeball grabbers" and "soft news" are the only hope for local news in an era of declining TV audiences.

But a 2004 study* argues that they might want to rethink their approach. In "The Local News Story: Is Quality a Choice?" political science professors Todd L. Belt and Marion Just conclude that sensationalistic news does not lead to sensational ratings.

Belt, assistant professor at the University of Hawai'i, Hilo, and Just, a professor at Wellesley College and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, argue that the prevailing worldview in the nation's newsrooms has it all backward: Good, solid journalism, not tawdry, tabloid-style content, keeps viewers tuned to their TVs.


What Belt and Just found certainly goes against industry conventional wisdom.

"The data show quality journalism produces commercial success," they write. Newscasts that posted high scores on the quality index nabbed higher ratings than their mediocre counterparts. The finding held true for both the early and late evening news time slots. It also held for lead stories, suggesting that the old TV news mantra - "If it bleeds, it leads" - might be in need of revision.

Although local news viewership as a whole fell during the period covered by the study - 1998 to 2002 - the data nonetheless show that those stations that produced high-quality newscasts did better in hanging on to their audience.

The Washington Post
Howard Kurtz, Mike Allen, Michael Shear
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