How to improve media coverage of politics & policy

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Apparently, it's "I agree with Washington Post columnists" day. (Well, not all of them...)

The Post's Ezra Klein writes:

It's trite to say it, but the news business is biased toward, well, news. There are plenty of outlets that tell you what happened yesterday, but virtually no organizations that simply tell you what's going on. … News organizations will write occasional pieces trying to sum up the legislation, but if you miss them, it's hard to find them again, and they're not comprehensive anyway. ...

If I edited a major publication -- or even a medium-sized one -- I would begin each major legislative battle by detailing a few of my smartest, clearest writers to create a hyperlinked, fairly comprehensive, summary of the basic legislation. That summary would be kept updated throughout the process, and it would be linked in every single story written on the topic. As reader questions came in, and points of confusion arose, it would be expanded, so by the end, you'd have a document that was current, comprehensive, navigable and responsive to the questions people actually had about the legislation. Telling people what just happened is undeniably important, but given that most people aren't following that closely, we in the media need to do a better job of telling people what's been happening.

I've argued repeatedly that the news media does a lousy job of conveying the basic, essential information about political and public policy debates, in part because they seem to think it is sufficient to do so only occasionally. It isn't. Repetition is key.

News organizations seem to assume that their readers and viewers read and watch every one of their reports, and perfectly internalize the information contained therein. That isn't how the world works. That isn't how people consume news, or how they process information. If you tell them one time that a tax hike will only affect people making more than $250,000, then run 75 articles in which the proposed increase is discussed without indicating that it won't apply to those making less than $250,000, they're going to think the tax increase applies to everyone -- particularly since those 75 articles likely quote a wide variety of people making exactly that suggestion. If you tell the truth once and repeat a falsehood ten times, people will believe the falsehood, not the truth. If you convey the important essential information about a debate once, and devote ten news reports to tangential arguments and political squabbling, people won't be aware of the essential information.

None of this should be surprising. And it's easy to do things better, if anyone wants to. And there is some reason to believe consumers of news might embrace news coverage that repeatedly and clearly explains the basic information they need to know.

The Washington Post
Ezra Klein
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