Media Cutbacks Hurting Local News Coverage

I’ve written before on this blog about the danger to our society from the huge payroll cuts at news gathering operations, due to the current transition of traditional media to online “new” media.  The cuts in staffing have affected the amount of news that can be covered at the very least, if not the quality of the reporting.  With papers such as the Washington Post eliminating their local bureaus (the Post shut down all of its U.S. bureaus and now covers the whole country from its headquarters in Washington, D.C.), readers only get second-hand reporting of news outside the region in which the media outlet is located. Newspapers and broadcast news operations nationwide are depending on re-reporting news from local media.

However, according to a lengthy new report released by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the amount of news coverage at the local level has fallen off sharply, also, due to drastic cutbacks by local broadcasters and newspapers. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, speaking on June 10th at Columbia School of Journalism about this report, commented that the biggest challenge to journalism in theU.S. is “the disruptive impact the Internet and economic pressures have had on local news gathering.”  He noted that newspapers have cut back on staff, some have even shut down, and many local broadcasters also have cut back on news budgets.  He said, “…Many stations have no news at all…This matters, because if citizens don’t get local news and information, the health of our democracy suffers.  Journalism provides a vital check against corruption by those with power. The less quality local reporting we have, the less likely we are to learn about government misdeeds, schools that fail children, hospitals that mistreat patients or factories that pollute the water.”

I’ve seen discussions online among journalists about the big hole left in their coverage of the news and their fear that it will be filled with news releases supplied by public relations people.  You’d think that as a public relations professional this would make me happy, but it doesn’t. It isn’t a healthy way for the media to operate, and it will ultimately result in a further weakening of traditional media.

Some people feel that so-called “citizen journalists” will take the place of reporters who have been laid off, and that they’ll do just as good a job, if not better.  But self-proclaimed “citizen journalists” can’t replace trained professionals. For starters, readers can’t assess the accuracy of their reports. At least journalists working for media outlets have been interviewed and chosen by seasoned professionals, and their work is scrutinized on a daily basis by those who hired them!

Last weekend on an NPR segment about the new FCC report, I heard an interesting observation about the effect that Google search algorithms are having on the news people consume online. It turns out that Google’s software works in a similar way to Amazon’s and other retail sites’ search engines.  When you buy something – or even search for something – on Amazon, the site’s software makes assumptions that you’re interested in that product, and the next time you log into Amazon, you’re presented with suggestions for similar items to buy. Google’s search engine remembers your searches and the clicks you make on search results to select websites. If you search for or visit Fox News, the next time you’re looking for news, the search engine will push Fox News as well as other conservative news sources to the top of your search results. Similarly, if you visit the New York Times or the Huffington Post, you’ll be directed towards other liberal-leaning news sources. Therefore, Google’s search mechanism in effect reinforces people’s opinions and biases.  When I do a search on Google, the results I get can be drastically different from what someone else gets, even if the search is done at the same moment in time.

This built-in news bias, when added to the dearth of reporting at the local level, is very worrisome. No wonder politics in theU.S.has become so polarized, with the distance between red and blue, left and right, growing bigger all the time.

Lucy Siegel

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