The media love bad news; you must not
Blame it on Watergate.
In the final weeks of 2021, there was a rush of comments accusing the mainstream media of highlighting missteps by the Biden government while ignoring significant achievements.
But that’s nothing new. It’s a persistent habit in the Washington press department that traces its origins back nearly half a century to the infamous scandal that brought down Richard Nixon.
Few commentators confirm this. Instead, seasoned journalists and analysts today blame readers and viewers for the emphasis on darkness and doom – evidence of what has been termed “bad news bias”. To attract an audience, the media has to give people what they want – and what people want is bad news.
That sinister tendency exists. The need to look for bad news is ingrained in our DNA; We use negative information to protect ourselves from the dangers of life. When natural disasters strike, reporters keep reporting them – and yes, clicks and audience ratings keep rising too. Floods, fires and tornadoes put our brains on the highest alert. The video of destructive aftermath even moves us to find ways to help, with the feeling that each of us might be victims next time.
Politics is not like that. The “bad news bias” doesn’t really apply here as it does with natural disasters. Few read the umpteenth story about Biden’s problems bringing different factions together in his party and think, “I only go for God’s grace.” The pessimistic Beltway coverage instead appeals to something more superficial in human nature: cynicism.
Watergate didn’t generate media cynicism – but it certainly helped. In the years following Nixon’s resignation, Washington correspondents looked for anything that looked like a successful sequel Carl BernsteinCarl BernsteinCan the media regain credibility under Biden? 12:30 PM Report from The Hill: Hectic Week Develops in DC Carl Bernstein MORE Calls Trump’s Georgia Call “Far Worse Than Watergate” MORE‘s and Bob Woodward’s investigation. Some of what they uncovered was important and worthwhile, including the FBI’s Abscam operation in the late 1970s and the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s.
But too many were minor events that the media highlighted with a trendy “-gate” suffix. Few people remember the alleged misconduct of Billygate, Debategate, Filegate, Nannygate, Travelgate, and Troopergate – and historical notes. (Actually three different troopergates.)
Even so, the journalistic mindset that emphasized the scandal now permeates all Washington reporting. Healthy skepticism towards those in power no longer seems to be enough; Cynicism lives in its place. Reporters who want to appear smart and urbane must also appear jaded and sardonic. Few are criticized for being overly pessimistic.
Instead, the worst sin is to support a politician or a government by reporting the positive. These correspondents are quickly dismissed as “in the tank” – brainwashed by the Spin Doctors at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
All of this has a cumulative effect. Most Americans don’t pay attention to every twist in Congress or the White House; Most voters’ eyes glaze over when someone tries to assign a “-gate” suffix to a Washington Bruhaha. But over time, they feel the trust in government and trust in basic institutions wane. Year after year, surveys show that we care less and less about the institutions that keep the country running.
None of this is to say that reporters should somehow ignore government failures, mistakes, or corruption. This is more about what Washington correspondents, producers, and editors consider important news every day: what’s on page one; Which story makes it into the first segment of a program? Where is the balance?
An example: In the middle of all the reporting about President BidenJoe BidenSunday Show Preview: Omicron Rises and Harris Sits for an in-depth interviewIn the last week’s struggles with Congress or COVID, there was also news that the Senate had confirmed Biden’s 40th federal justice candidate. This set a record that Ronald Reagan set decades ago. The recent changes to the Supreme Court have made it very clear the importance of the appointment of judges. But the news of this achievement appeared in the print edition of a national newspaper on page 22, below the fold.
The story was easy to miss. It shouldn’t have been.
But to change this type of news judgment, political journalists need to change their perspective on what is really important to their audience – and the country as a whole. After half a century it will do a lot.
But it would help viewers, readers, and voters if the media recognized that sometimes – even in Washington – good news is real news.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media manager, producer, and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news manager for NBC, writer and producer for Dateline NBC, and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ ironworker1.