Cleaning Out the Attic: The Future Is Here
Bush Uses NAACP Speech To Promote Estate Tax Repeal

Reporters: Informing Readers vs. Minimizing Risk

Hoisted from comments: Jay Rosen:

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Dana Milbank vs. Helen Thomas: From Brad's Where Are the Heirs of Walter Lippman?: "Note that my examples are budget examples. I'm one of the budget people. But I have peers in other issue areas. They see the same deficiencies. Whether they are bombs-and-bullets people, striped-pants-diplomacy people, welfare-and-social-policy people, science-and-technology-policy people--they all see the same patterns."

Brad: Those "patterns" begin to find some explanation when you realize that categories like "hard news" rather than "analytical piece" are simultaneously serving as a reality-reporting system, and a risk-reduction method. Hard news is supposed to be lowest risk, not necessarily harder information. It's lower risk to just say what happened ("Rove said...") without saying what's true. An "analysis" piece means you can speculate about motives and what might happen from here. Slightly higher risk, but not necessarily more "analytical."

Or let's take the classic in press watcher frustration... He said this happened, she said that happened. It tries to inform you in a half-hearted way, but it secures protection from being wrong in a full-throated way. "I'm just telling you what they said." It's not truthtelling but innocence-establishing behavior-- see? no agenda.

Here's the catch: officially, journalists only engage in truthtelling. That they would the choose the more innocent account over the more truthful one contradicts the professional self-image. So it doesn't happen, even though it does. When what journalists are doing makes no sense at all to you on the reality-reporting scale, switch yourself over to the risk-reduction (or "refuge") scale and measure it there.

Why don't journalists work together and coordinate their assaults to get a better answer from the President? Might make sense on the reality-reporting front, but fry the circuits on risk reduction. They'd open themselves to "cabal" charges, or so they think. Why didn't Leonard Downie join with Bill Keller and Dean Baquet in their joint op-ed explaining the need to report on classified programs sometimes? (He was asked.) He didn't want to risk the impression that news organizations act together to "get" something.

For we are dealing not only with the risk of being wrong, but of coming under effective attack in the culture war's politicized theatre of news. Outside actors can influence the news by raising the perception of risk.

Posted by: ay Rosen |July 18, 2006 at 03:26 PM