Crisis journalism

Posted: 28 October 2009 in Uncategorized
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I’ve been meaning to write about a superb study of media coverage of the current crises, “Covering the Great Recession,” conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Among the major findings:

Three storylines have dominated: efforts to help revive the banking sector, the battle over the stimulus package and the struggles of the U.S. auto industry. Together they accounted for nearly 40% of the economic coverage from February 1 through August 31. Other topics related to the crisis have been covered much less. As an example, all the reporting of retail sales, food prices, the impact of the crisis on Social Security and Medicare, its effect on education and the implications for health care combined accounted for just over 2% of all the economic coverage.

Actions by government officials and business leaders drove much of the coverage. The White House and federal agencies alone initiated nearly a third (32%) of economic stories studied through July 3. Business triggered another 21%. About a quarter of the stories (23%) was initiated by the press itself and did not rely on an external news trigger. Ordinary citizens and union workers combined to act as the catalyst for only 2% of the stories about the economy.

In other words, the media have focused on the effects of the crises on big business and on how government officials and business leaders have responded to the crises. Coverage of all the other important issues—the broader impact of the economic downturn on the lives of ordinary Americans, labor issues, worker layoffs, the ways (both good and bad) people have responded to the crises—has been negligible.

In my mind, the study emphasizes two key issues: the importance of investigative journalism and the silencing of subaltern voices.

On the first,

when the coverage was heavily institutional and based on government action, the stories were coming at the press. To cover the lives of ordinary people, journalists had to go out and find the stories for themselves.

One example was a March 12 story in the Kansas City Star that illustrated some unorthodox ways in which the recession was affecting crime. The story told of a man who stole a bank’s overnight deposit box in an economically hard-hit county in Southwest Missouri only to return the following night and give back that part of the loot that belonged to regular citizens. The local sheriff was quoted saying the robber apparently could not bring himself to keep the “little people’s money.”

On the second,

In analyzing sources in stories, however, the fundamental pattern is the same. Those in government, and especially Obama administration staffers, dominated the conversation. Representatives of business and industry came next, followed by academics and independent observers. But the voices of ordinary citizens and people in the workplace trailed behind, appearing in only about one in every five stories.

Clearly, the existing media, especially as the ranks of investigative journalists are being depleted, cannot be counted on to provide a “fair and balanced” perspective on the current crises. Nor do electronic publications and the blogosphere, in which subaltern voices and perspectives are rarely in evidence, represent a solution to the problem.

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