Beside journalism’s addiction to prediction lies another comorbidity: its presumption to set expectations.
Of course, we are well familiar with this co-occuring condition in coverage of politics, where journalists think they bring value to public discourse — which they do not — when they predict who will win an election. In the process, they set expectations about what a candidate must do to meet the pundit’s definition of “winning.”
But we see these ailments strike other areas of coverage. Take the pandemic and the economy. There is much pearl-clutching right now about inflation. Journalists have set the expectation that prices should not rise in spite of the facts that: (1) we are in the midst of an earth-shattering pandemic, (2) this affects the availability of labor, which in turn affects both (3) wages and (4) the supply chain, which in turn results in (5) higher prices for now. Media says it is a political failure that prices are rising. This is what we call a media narrative.*
Yet the economy is otherwise miraculously healthy. Unemployment is at record lows. The stock market is at highs. Savings are up. In spite of the pandemic and thanks in great measure to the incredible gift that is the internet, industry continues with few issues while local schools and businesses are on the whole open. One might think that media’s narrative would be about how fucking lucky we are in this nation to be so well-equipped to meet this challenge. But no, that’s not media’s Weltanschauung. Media wear dung-colored glasses.
Imagine a different set of expectations. Over Christmas, our daughter gave us the wonderful gift of having all our families’ 8 mm film digitized and we went through many old photos and files, including those that accompanied my 95-year-old father when we rescued him from the petri dish of viruses and malign idiocy that is Florida and finally moved him to be up with us. In one of the boxes, we found my late mother’s World War II ration booklet.
And that made me think: If we are fighting a “war” against the virus — as another of media’s narratives would wish us to believe — then why did media not set expectations of war-like measures against it, including: (1) official rationing of scarce resources, (2) price-controls to tamp down inflation caused by the scarcity of certain commodities, (3) wage controls to hold back further inflation in a time of scarce labor, (4) easing of immigration restrictions to increase the labor pool, (5) government subsidies for employment and sick leave, (6) mobilization of industry to produce the scarce resources needed, (7) mobilization of federal and state forces to augment labor and enforce rules to protect us all in mandates to (8) get vaccinated and (9) wear masks and (10) in shutdowns to hamper the virus’ spread.
There are a few answers to that hypothetical. The first is that we did not need to resort to all those drastic measures because the economy is healthy, technology has enabled us to mostly continue work (indeed, becoming more productive), and science has given us the blessing of vaccinations that arrived with incredible speed and efficacy.
The second answer is that if media had set such drastic expectations then I believe the presidential election — focused on how little Trump did to protect us and how much he did to harm us — would not have been so “close” (another media narrative based on its own expectation). Then Biden would have had the political cover to more readily take the bold actions from the list above that we do need, such as mask and vaccination mandates and mobilization of industry to make vaccines, masks, and other vital products.
The third answer is that if expectations were so dire then the current administration would be judged against them and would look pretty damned good. Oh, but media hate that narrative. It would make them look biased. We don’t find solutions. We find failure. But that, of course, is the essence of media’s bias.
Instead, media set the expectation that Normal is a street just past the next corner and failing to drive us there in time for tomorrow’s news is failure.
One of my many heresies is that news- and media-literacy are bullshit. They are mediacentric skeins intended to protect media from their own failures and blame the public for them: You, the people we serve, are just too ignorant to understand what we tell you and let’s explain to you how we do what we do so as to avoid a discussion of why we should be doing something else.
This morning, I had a long discussion in DM with two people I respect immensely about local news. It made me think about how too often the discussion in journalism these days refuses to question its presumptions (its narratives about itself):
- That hiring more reporters in newsrooms is the goal. (But who is to say that news as it was is news as it should be?)
- That local news is the highest virtue. (But how much do people associate themselves with geography versus affinity, interest, need, circumstance, and community now that the net allows them to connect in more ways?)
- That people should be expected to pay a high price for news. (When over the century of mass media, news was always cheap.)
- That news as it is is worth paying for. (So much is not.)
In the latest Reuters Institute survey of news leaders, I was heartened to see that 47 percent of respondents “worry that subscription models may be pushing journalism towards super-serving richer and more educated audiences and leaving others behind.” Amen.
Yet at the same time, 79 percent said getting audience revenue — behind paywalls — is a top priority. Almost a third expect to get “significant revenue from tech platforms for content licensing or innovation” — read, blackmail, obtained by journalism organizations cashing in their political capital through lobbying the politicians they are meant to cover so as to pressure new competitors to pay them baksheesh. That is pure protectionism. But that’s my narrative. Another 15 percent expect money from philanthropists and foundations. That is to say, they are confessing to a market failure — their failure to serve the market (not the market’s failure to serve them).
The survey reports that “publishers say the biggest barriers to innovation are the lack of money, due to wider economic challenges, and difficulty in attracting and retaining technical staff.” I’ve heard that for years — dare I call it another narrative? — and I disagree now more than ever. Innovation will not come from technology. It will come from realizing new ways to listen to and serve the public through the tools we already have. It will come from abandoning the journalistic prerogative of setting expectations for the public.
The future of journalism I wish for will come from divining means for the public to set their own expectations and judge journalism’s value based on how much we help meet them.†
* Please note that I use “narrative” throughout ironically and mockingly. See Jay Rosen:
† See also Jay on how to cover campaigns through the citizens’ agenda.