Mormon Media Observer: FCC study shows decline of local news

By Lane Williams

Mormon Times

Published: Monday, June 27 2011 5:30 a.m. MDT

Consider for a minute the “news” on Yahoo.com last Friday morning:

A man is building a “full-scale” Noah’s ark.

Los Angeles basketball star Ron Artest has changed his name to “Metta World Peace.”

Football player Reggie Bush is now dating a woman who is famous in part for looking like Bush’s ex-girlfriend, the reality TV star Kim Kardashian.

There is a report of David Letterman’s treatment of Justin Bieber and of a major gaffe on some food show. A missing photo of Farrah Fawcett was found.

Oh yes, and there is an article or two on Osama bin Laden’s relationship with Pakistan’s intelligence services, a story with some importance to international relations.

It’s an irony of modern news. Even as news seems to be everywhere and in more places than ever before, what passes as news today is often cheap and tawdry, doing little to add to the insight into governance so necessary to democracy. It is not a journalism that performs the functions we wish it to.

I should say that I am with the commentators who decry the cheapening of culture that comes with this sort of “news," and I worry about the lack of useful information that flows from such coverage in a democracy that assumes citizens need to be informed. I also acknowledge that news has always had some of this stuff. But my points lie elsewhere.

What I would say starts with an observation: It costs less money to write about scheduled court trials and celebrity gossip than it does to write about international relations. It costs more to analyze policy in informative ways than it does to go to a fashion show featuring the Kardashians.

Simply put, the cheap, simple and tawdry so prevalent in news today seems, in part, a sign of the economic times.

A new study from the Federal Communications Commission underscores these changing dynamics of the news business. It makes two points that build on these facts.

First, in this world of more news all the time, one of the exciting trends has been that bloggers and other new voices provide new, powerful insight into issues. Such insight provides a more robust, democratic debate.

But here’s the rub the FCC points out. As other researchers have shown, many, if not most, bloggers don’t provide original research or original “news.” Instead, they comment on and link to existing news content — produced by a legacy media that has fewer resources.

If you listen to Sean Hannity, for example, sometimes it seems he takes much of his show prep by reading the online Drudge Report and providing his insight on it. (Drudge, in turn, links to other people’s stories, while not doing much of his own research. That’s not saying that either Hannity or Drudge fail to provide a valuable public service to their listeners.)

At its worst, this insight means that more and more people are commenting on fewer and fewer things — stories produced by a news media that sees no profit — or little — when yahoo!, Hannity or others comment on their stories. Eventually, a vicious cycle takes over, cutting the number of original reporters.

This trend can be a problem for the explanation of national affairs in Washington, D.C., as reporters neglect the depth of stories in public policy for the ease of covering the latest relational trauma of Kim or Khloe or for the convenience of the latest press release dropped in the baskets of the White House press office.

Washington has so much money and so many interest groups that many nonprofit and for-profit organizations provide incredible, useful information online in a form that seems like journalism in all but name. So, voters can stay informed on Washington affairs if they wish to do so, even bypassing much of the legacy media.

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