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Do the news media spend too much time on news?

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The graph above comes from Pew's study of the media's coverage of health-care reform, and on first blush, it makes the media look, well, not great, but not awful. There really were a lot of stories devoted to the substance of the plans. But as Igor Volsky points out, "as the debate progressed, Americans became more, not less, confused about the policy." In July of 2009, 63 percent said they were having trouble understanding the bill. By December 2009, that had jumped to 69 percent. Six months and thousands of articles and television spots left the American people more, rather than less, uncertain as to the issues under consideration.

There's a problem in the way the media cover substance. At the beginning of the debate, there's a fair amount of attention paid to the basics of the legislation. But the basics of the legislation are not the controversial parts, and so the argument moves on to smaller pieces of the legislation that are controversial. The media cover those points of controversy, and people tune in, but they missed the beginning, and now everyone is talking about the bill's third CBO score, not about how the thing actually works.

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. Keeping up on the news is easy, but getting a handle on an ongoing situation that you've not really been following is hard. In recent years, we've seen the rise of outlets like FactCheck.org, which try and police lies that are relevant to the debate. But there's really no one out there who is trying to give you the background to everything going in the debate. 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. The fact that I still can't direct people to one really good, really clear, really comprehensive online summary of the bill is an enduring frustration for me, and a real problem given the importance of the legislation and the number of questions there are about it.

If I edited a major publication -- or even a medium-size 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 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.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 22, 2010; 9:06 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform , Journalism  
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Comments

You don't the Newshour does a comprehensive job of reporting an issue?

Posted by: RoundGoby | June 22, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Ezra Klein: "But there's really no one out there who is trying to give you the background to everything going in the debate."

Its called "wikipedia."

Posted by: QuiteAlarmed | June 22, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse

News by its very nature can't go into the background every single time there is something new to reports.

In a similar manner, most news consumers don't want background every single time there is something new to report. To many news consumers, they want to know about the controversial bits, so they can either agree that the bill is terrible because of the death panels and mandatory sterilization of Republicans, or so they can say how stupid the opposition is for not liking something, or for believing something is something that it really isn't.

The vast majority of news consumers aren't interested in going back and reading the background. It would be nice, for the 10% of news consumers (reading online) who used it. Or the .01% of new consumers generally. But it would not change that chart.

I think a great deal of the news, however, are talking heads with axes to grind citing bits and pieces of legislation in an effort to further grind those axes. So while they are technically reporting the factoids of the story, they are presented in very distracting frames.

I don't think there is too much news in the news. Quite the opposite.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 22, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

The media is a joke.

They sensationalize everything.

They amplify irrelevant voices and propaganda (e..g Sarah Palin's death panels) and allow them the same "airtime" as more relevant voices (e.g. President of the United States).

A propaganda piece that is allowed to run for one minute on a major news show gets more bang for the buck than a hundred wonkish analyis stories on internet news outlets.

Then you have non-stop propaganda advertisements that are allowed to run on news shows and blogs such as this one.

I personally know Republicans who to this day believe that Obamacare means we are getting rid of private insurers and instead starting up gvmt insurance. Even today, large numbers of Republicans and US military members believe Saddam had links to 911, or that Obama raised taxes on everyone though in fact he lowered them for the majority. Tell me how this is possible if the media is so good at their job?

You can't judge the media based on the numbers of stories you count. You have to somehow weight the stories, and the amount of airtime they and their authors get on TV, the amount of ads that are run, whether outright distortions/lies are called out when they are uttered on TV, and whether the White House press pool (the biggest joke of all) asks tough questions, and so on.

One clear sign that the media is doing a bad job is that they attend gvmt social functions as quests. Any journalist who attends such a function as a guest has IMHO committed a serious ethical breach and creates conflicts of interests in their jobs in the future.

Posted by: Lomillialor | June 22, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

That is a fantastic idea. If a newspaper or magazine did that, it would be a selling point for me. And it seems like such an easy thing to do.

Posted by: tracy2 | June 22, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, why can't you do this? This is the Washington Post, not the Nome Alaska Times.

It seems like you would be a perfect candidate, if you just took a couple days off to gather everything up.

Just saying.

Posted by: pemlewis | June 22, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

pemlewis, I thought the same thing, but while Ezra may even want to do something like that, it's a really massive undertaking and not really in the scope of either his job or (likely) in the amount of time he has in a day.

Maintaining an informative, accurate, and up-to-date reference guide would probably be a ton of work. It's not something an eager young staff blogger does in his spare time because he's all fired up about it. Also, keep in mind that while that would have been useful for healthcare, I think Ezra's imagining something like this for every major issue that crops up. Even if he had the time to do the healthcare one, he wouldn't have the time or knowledge necessary to do one on every major issue.

Posted by: MosBen | June 22, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Actually, Ezra, you came as close as anyone I could find on health care. You were actually addressing substance!

I like your idea and look forward to your generation taking over the news policy decisions. The current media players are for the most part not interested in news, they are interested in conflict. They become enmeshed in the process and neglect the substance. It looks increasingly self-indulgent and lazy.

There is a troubling cynicism embedded in this pattern, where parsing the motives of the journalist becomes as difficult as actually getting some news. The graph you show should actually evoke some degree of shame, I think. Voters need information about substance, not a window into the fixations of various media players.

I think the most damning evidence of the media's failure in the health care debate is that a lion's share of the public disapproves of it with great fervor, yet has no idea what is in the legislation. What the media gave us was fuel for "feeling negative".

After 17 months of watching the media's weird obsessing over every jot and tittle that emerges from the Obama administration, ever in search of failure and conflict, I am bone tired. As a country of citizens in search of optimism, we deserved better.

Posted by: pbkritek | June 22, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

There's still time!

With more than 50% of voters calling for repeal of the matter, 18 substantial lawsuits seeking injunction against implementation, and a growing number of lawsuits seeking mandamus forcing implementation or to claim entitlements purported to be available, the PPACA remains a hot topic. The hourly campaign advertisements televised in jurisdictions having contested House races offer a sense of the hotness ... a sense of urgency and concern that (for whatever reason) doesn't seem to be penetrating the Washington bubble.

Some questions -- like why am I free to boycott BP but not every health insurer I don't like -- are monumental and have persistent ramifications. So, I agree that the news media seems to be missing the substance of the concerns but that may be because the substance is too large and sweeping to be fully understood and fully explored in the time allotted.

Posted by: rmgregory | June 22, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Your second paragraph there just might explain something. See, I looked at that report and though, that can't possibly be right. My memory of the media healthcare coverage was that it was about 80% horserace crap, 10% other stuff, and maybe about 10% about what the actual proposals were. Frustrated me to no end, because that's what I was trying to find out. That, in fact, is what eventually led me to your blog, where I found a lot more of that than anywhere else.

But. Ah ha. I didn't come into this at the beginning. I didn't start to really try following it until somewhere in the middle. If the coverage changed over time, with more of the substance at the beginning, that would explain why I missed it.

I love your idea. I very much wish there had been something of that sort about healthcare reform, and I very, very, very much wish there was one for financial reform and environmental legislation. Too much to ask, I guess, but you know--a lot of us do come in in the middle.

As for the comment above, that there wouldn't be any audience for that--how do you know that? Has there been any research into what the news consumer actually wants? You can look at ratings, but you can't look at ratings for something that's not being done.

Posted by: LMinOH | June 22, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Wait, Congress doesn't produce an explanatory note for each bill? In the UK, every bill is accompanied by an explanatory note, explaining it. The quality varies, but they're generally alright as a starter.

Posted by: albamus | June 22, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

The public became more, not less, confused because as the more that was revealed about the bill the more we realized that it a lot things were not spelled out or were very ambiguous.

They still haven't figured out a great deal of the regulations. They said the bill would ban pre-ex on kids, but it didn't really do so and they had to threaten insurers to get them to do something the law didn't require. They said there would be minimum loss ratios and they still haven't figured out how to calculate them. They said that rescission would be banned but they still haven't figured out what the exceptions are. They said that employers and individuals would get tax credits/subsidies for coverage, but few non-accountants can interpret all of the rules.

Posted by: ab_13 | June 22, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Isn't that the niche that the news weeklies were supposed to fill?

Posted by: pj_camp | June 22, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

The underlying problem is that the legislation is muddled, ambiguous, and unpopular. Supporters in the government and the media have no incentive to spell it out more clearly because that will only increase its unpopularity.

Posted by: tomtildrum | June 22, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

QuiteAlarmed is on the right track. Wikipedia was the first thing I thought of, too, when reading your description of what you want to see. So I checked out the page for ACA:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patient_Protection_and_Affordable_Care_Act

...it's not *everything* you would want, but it's a pretty darned good start!

I note that, while there is a page for ACES, there isn't one for APA/Kerry-Lieberman. There is also a mildly out-of-date page for fin reg, although I had to poke a bit to find it. Still seems like a great platform to build on.

Posted by: scharch | June 22, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Most of the "news" reported by the media these days is not news at all, but silly speculation about the motives behind the actions of public figures, and speculation about things that might happen in the immediate future. If you edited a half hour newscast down to only the parts telling you about things that actually happened--you know, the NEWS--you'd have maybe five minutes.

Posted by: jiji1 | June 22, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

You know, a Wiki run by wonks/experts/journalists that would address these various issues would be pretty interesting. I include journalists because I think the wonks/experts might not be the best at writing in a way that people and understand. At the same time, opening it up to journalists brings concerns about spin or accuracy, so it'd be useful to have some kind of panel composed of mostly experts/wonks to review contentious submissions.

Still, Experts' Wiki would get a bookmark from me.

Posted by: MosBen | June 22, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

What you are suggesting sounds like what The Baseline Scenario is doing for the financial crisis.

Posted by: Merula | June 22, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

"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..."

I wish you were the editor of the WaPo! I've tried to grapple with this bizarre form of coverage myself, particularly discussing the health care bill with uninfomred friends/family. They thought the public option was the only thing in there.

Oh, and handouts to people who wouldn't work. They had no idea that medicaid covered those folks, and it was the workers who showed up everyday to lousy jobs that were actually uninsured.

Of course, the old folks just don't want any of that government involvement -- for anyone else!

Posted by: rat-raceparent | June 22, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Isn't this what Google's "Living Stories" experiment was trying to accomplish? Though looking at it, it's a good catch all, but still pretty confusing.

Posted by: JohnnyMcNugget | June 22, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

First..objective news would have covered the Town Halls and the Legislative process equally - and objective reporting of the bribes, the kickbacks, the threats that preceded the passage of this bill would have dominated the coverage in true transparency. Who actually wrote the bill - the Congress or lobbyist groups as in the Stimulus Bill?

Instead, the very fact that they covered the politics of the process more accurately reflects their agenda is not to inform the people but to influence the people politically.

Posted by: LMW6 | June 22, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

I agree with those who think this is a great idea. Something similar would be tremendously helpful for staff to pursue at the local level too - it would increase clarity for everyone involved in the process (citizens, city staff, elected officials).

Posted by: northquirk | June 22, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

You're totally talkin' my language, here, Ezra. I've tried using Wikipedia for this purpose many, many times, and it just never cut it. The questions I had were hardly ever answered to my satisfaction.

Weirdly enough, I was watching a short video about the "Semantic Web" today, and one of the participants said something very similar to what you said here: http://www.swiss-miss.com/2010/06/web-3-0.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Swissmiss+(swissmiss) :

"If I was going to start a news business tomorrow, I would start a news business designed to produce not one new bit of news. But, instead, to aggregate news for individuals in ways that matter to them."

I noticed this statement, in particular, because it's a problem I've thought about for some time and haven't done anything about.

In a sense, I feel like we're talking here about the difference between "news" and information. It bothers me that no matter how much I follow the "news", I don't feel better informed. It's a problem; I guess there are a lot of ways to solve it, but all the ways I've thought of require a lot of work and expertise.

The Wikipedia model obviously incorporates a lot of man-hours but there may be something lacking there in terms of expertise. And no matter what model you use, you're going to run into the problem of editorial bias. Because you're not just aggregating but also selecting. By necessity because there's so much crap out there. But then again, one person's crap is another person's "crap". So, I don't have a good answer here.

From what little I know of the Semantic Web (which is very, very little), it seems a bit like a pipe dream. Like Bertrand Russell's quest for the logic calculator (or whatever that thing was). But honestly, I have no idea what I'm talking about, so maybe that's not true. All I know is that you're definitely not alone on this issue. And when you find the resource we are looking for, please share!

Posted by: slag | June 22, 2010 9:20 PM | Report abuse

Amen! The news is written and broadcast only for people who tune in intently every day (which is a weird subset of the population). There are plenty of people who try to stay informed, but can't because the big picture is lost in the daily outrages and hourly food fights.

Posted by: vvf2 | June 23, 2010 5:17 AM | Report abuse

This would also be useful for science coverage. A story on dark matter, for example, usually has to spend half of its space explaining the Big Bang and the current model of cosmology before getting to the actual news. It would be better to refer to a fixed summary describing cosmology, stem cells, or whatever.

Posted by: akuchling | June 23, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

The Post worked with Google on Living Stories: http://livingstories.googlelabs.com/
"Complete coverage of an on-going story is gathered together and prioritized on one URL."

Posted by: DCSC | June 23, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

That Living Stories link is interesting. I'd never heard of it before. But the design is kind of rubbish and demonstrates what a challenge developing this resource might be. Click on "What's in the Bills" under the healthcare reform topic, and the headlines all look like horserace-style stories. Not helpful. Beyond which, I would strongly object to the framing of the "Overview". It struck me as a bizarrely worded representation of what I know about HCR. And don't even get me started on the "Comparing the bills" section. Just weird. You said "The Post" was involved. Did you mean the New York Post? That would explain a lot.

So, I guess I can see why they gave it up. But I'd like to think Ezra's idea is still doable. In the right hands. Which apparently don't include Google or "The Post".

Posted by: slag | June 24, 2010 2:20 AM | Report abuse

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