A brief soundbyte:

But the media is even more obsessed this time around with questions of tactics and strategy, despite what the study described as a "generational struggle" in both parties. Horse-race stories accounted for 63 percent of reports this year compared with what the study said was about 55 percent in 2000 and 2004.

-- Katharine Q. Seeleye, "Horse Race Prevails in Campaign Reporting", NYT

The study in question was conducted by the Pew Research Center and researchers at Harvard. Its results are in line with, and provide strong statistical evidence for, my general frustration with American politics, American media, and this election cycle.

There is a problem, though. This story is from 2007. The election in question is that which led to Barack Obama's first term as US President.

Further Back

Right around 1900 seems to be when newspapers sailed off the deep end, as far as I can tell. (I was born nearly a century later; it is difficult to determine.) Criticism of New York City tabloids gave rise to the phrase "Yellow Journalism" (which sounds like a slur, but seems to refer to the color of paper often used).

Frank Luther Mott gave a detailed description of this phenomenon, but I cannot actually cite him usefully here; instead, we will use the modified framework from W. Joseph Campbell. Campbell conducted a study of prominent newspaper covers from 1899 to 1999 (i.e., right around the start of the phrase usage until the time of publication) and their acquisition of traits associated with Yellow Journalism. For this study, he divided the concept into three categories:


Multiple multi-column and banner headlines are Campbell's typographic qualifications. For me, this is the quintessential newspaper look; I cannot recall a paper that did not have this appearance.

Graphics and Illustration

Campbell requires multiple, multi-column illustrations here. And we have them in spades, every paper. On Sundays the paper is often larger; many papers feature an entirely frivolous section of illustrations (i.e., the comics). Sometimes they are even in color. Due to reasons, we briefly received copies of the Boston Globe thrown in the general direction of our door; the Sunday paper was a midsized tome filled with color pictures.


His qualification of this category is the most interesting of the three to me, and also the most detailed. I consider two to be important for this discussion: self-promotion and reporting of the extraneous. While use of anonymous sources is extremely prevalent, unlike Campbell I do not consider this a problem since the mainstream press tends to use them for protection, rather than to hurl slander from.

Self-promotion is extremly prevalent in our media, the most obvious modern example perhaps being televised reporting where cuts to "<studioname> on-the-scene reporter" (and the like) are common. Drastic over-reporting of sports and celebrity culture (and the like) is certainly an issue with modern news.

Incidentally, Campbell concludes that while the 1999-era major press has adopted the typographical and graphical conventions of Yellow Journalism, the content stylings have largely not been adopted. While this may have been true as of 1999, I do not believe it to currently be the case.

The Role of "The Media"

Armchair time. What (if any) purpose should news reporting serve?

It seems to me that news reporting ought to inform.

This is not an end unto itself; when one is informed, one is less likely to regret decisions made. We could go find citations for this, but it does not strike me as controversial, and to do so would require getting out of this armchair.

However, since we are not (necessarily) treating being informed as its own end (but rather a means), it is explicitly not a goal of reporting to provide all information to everyone at all times. Indeed, I doubt it would be possible to do so; more on that later.

No, what ought to be provided is content like the summary-with-citations approach taken by encyclopedias: here is some information, here is where to find out more. And this information ought to be useful to people; the world is not a soap opera.

But people are different: what is important to me, and my life, is not necessarily important to everyone (though of course many things will be important to everyone). So there will be, in this model, multiple sources that attempt to inform. And since there are multiple producers, and since no one is infallible, it is important that no one has a monopoly on truth.

And the news at each time it updates - daily, weekly, rolling, etc. - will not necessarily change. People died of hunger yesterday and today; they will do so tomorrow. This is important to everyone. Someone was murdered in a city on the other side of the continent. This is not important to most.

Enough of the armchair. How are we doing? Poorly, says Pew. In 2011. With a strong trend toward worse.

I think this is due to news outlets adopting Yellow Journalism practices. In the quest to maintain readers/viewers, especially with the ease of information dissemination that the Internet has given us recently. (AOL is around 1996, for reference.) This is, in essence, a manifestation of what I have come to call the Twitter problem: in order to attract viewers, we resort to soundbytes (which is exactly what I did at the top of this post), or quick attention-grabbers, and sensational headlines.

I do not see a way to fix this problem. Readers are unaware of this issue (or more accurately, unaware of how to fix it if they are even aware that it is an issue), says the Pew study. But the way to inform readers is through news sources, and since the news sources both are the problem and have no incentive to provide that information, it will not occur.

Let us also discuss, briefly, the notion of bias in reporting. The Pew study indicates that most favor unbiased reporting. This raises two questions for me.

Is unbiased reporting desirable?

On the surface it would seem that yes, since people claim to want it, and believe that they seek it out. However, any time published positions conflict with those of the readers or viewers, it will be noticed. From our armchair this is a good: it encourages thought, questioning, and may even be the truth. But it will have readership consequences. And we all have false beliefs; I know I do.

Furthermore, it is doubtful that all authors wish to remain unbiased. If one has an agenda and a soapbox, it seems to me that there is exactly one way events can unfold.

Is unbiased reporting possible?

Suppose that all reports are totally unbiased. Even then, bias is still present in the choice of which reports to run and their order. Here I want to refer back to the soundbyte (really, the study itself) I opened with: even absent factual inaccuracies, reporting is heavily biased (and largely frivolous).

What if we pick stories at random, though? Let us ignore for a moment that this would violate our requirement that the news publication inform since there is a more interesting problem with this approach. Sussman attains enlightenment is relevant here (which, for the curious, seems to have actually happened): the gist of which is that when one picks randomly, one is not removing bias, but rather randomizing it.

Is it even worth charitably reconstructing the other viewpoint?

I think so, most of the time. It leads to more civil discourse, and will result in more common ground being found by definition of practice.

But not all opposing viewpoints can be charitably reconstructed, or perhaps should be charitably reconstructed.

Final thoughts

I do not believe it is possible to create the kind of news climate that I would like to see in the world today. It is not my intention to preach pessimism, but having said that I do not see a way out. I want to be wrong here; it is important that I list what I consider the problems so that someone else can find the hole, fix it, and create a better world. But: as long as profit is paramount, we will have the soap opera; as long as the narrative is required, we will not actually convey much of importance; as long as we are not informed, we will not fix the larger world problems that we could today, such as the nearly 800 million people starving when there is enough food to feed them.

This thing

I want to give a special spotlight to this absolute trainwreck of a wikipedia article which has informed this piece. It is unabashedly biased, poorly sourced, occasionally incoherent, barely thought out, and absolutely wonderful as a starting point for this post.

I do not think that the citations will not be followed by anyone who reads this (if they even get this far), but they are here anyway. Just like that article.