Drive-by journalism is a major problem for the democracy. As our news sources have exploded, news coverage has paradoxically become narrower, shorter, and not surprisingly, dumber.
Some people keep a journal. Others prefer a diary. Yet others, particularly business people, maintain a daybook.
They are all the same thing, a ‘daily’ record: ‘journal’ is from the French jour, ‘diary’ from the Latin dies, both of which mean ‘day’.
The word ‘journal’ once referred to newspapers – a.k.a. the ‘dailies’ – but the term has transformed from that. Today a journal is typically an in-depth scholarly or professional collection of articles, published monthly or quarterly.
In media of course, reporters are called journalists. The irony is, the best journal-ism isn’t exactly journal-istic: the best stuff comprises in-depth investigative reporting which is serialized over several issues. That points to a problem with typical journalism, with media in general, and from those, with democracy.
It is not enough to consider a problem for one whole day.
We have all seen stories where the media makes quick work of a situation, only to have a completely different story emerge much later. A few years back a woman sued a fast-food restaurant when she spilled hot coffee in her lap. The media went wild.
An attorney who had looked into the case told me what the media did not cover. The coffee was so hot that the woman needed skin grafts, and the restaurant had received repeated complaints about other people being burned, and had done nothing about it.
I have frequently seen drive-by journalism in higher education reporting, particularly whenever athletes, fraternities, race or sex are involved. The media often takes a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach.1)This is still the approach of many cultures even today. Ancient German tribes practiced presumed guilt, and the idea re-emerged in the Medieval, resulting in the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials.
Some years back students from a university with a long-standing racist reputation visited another, more ‘enlightened’ university. At one point one of the visitors dropped the N-word. The national media exploded as students, faculty, and the president of the host university loudly expressed outrage and condemnation, and demanded swift justice.
I knew some of the students involved, and asked about it. Yes, one of them dropped the N-bomb, but claimed he did so only after the black man involved knocked a drink from his hand and called him “white redneck trash.”
I don’t know if that’s true. I’m not even saying it’s exculpatory. I only know that prestigious investigative media covered only one side, respected researchers reached conclusions without evidence, and that a university renowned for its law school passed judgment without a fair hearing.
We have been looking at obstacles to political progress. Citizens don’t pay enough attention to government; we aren’t very good at thinking about complex problems in the modern world; we defer to authority much too readily; and we are saddled with medieval educational paradigms that discourage real thinking.
We have also considered the problems of media, including the profitability of anger and the dangers of selling it. This post points to another problem with the media, and another obstacle to critical thinking: a cursory, ‘journal’ approach to news and modern problems.
More Sources, Less News
As our potential sources of information have exploded, our preferred sources of news have contracted. Adding to that is the monotony and mindlessness of the daily news, where most outlets overwhelmingly focus coverage on a handful of high-emotion, high-profit stories, ignoring more complex and nuanced issues, and then quickly moving on to the next news cycle.
Media attention is overwhelmingly day-to-day.
And so our consideration is day-to-day. We are not trained, nor encouraged to ponder the long, the broad, nor the deep aspects of issues. It is more profitable to the manager if workers are narrowly trained, it is more profitable to media and advertisers if consumers are narrowly informed. Or, at least it is more profitable in the short term.
In the long term it hurts everyone.
Drive-By Shooting, photographic still from the film Dick Tracy, courtesy of Touchstone Pictures, copyright 1990. All rights reserved.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||This is still the approach of many cultures even today. Ancient German tribes practiced presumed guilt, and the idea re-emerged in the Medieval, resulting in the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials.|