Deteriorating Journalism

Deteriorating Journalism

© David Burton 2012

Dewey Defeats Truman Headline

     America’s news media has deteriorated to the point that it is simply bad, bad, bad. A primary reason? – American news media has decided that it is more important to be first than to be right! Among the earler and more memorable blunders by the media in their frenzy to be first occurred during the 1948 presidential election when the Chicago Daily Tribune, on 3 November 1948, prematurely and incorrectly declared Thomas Dewey the winner over Harry Truman.

     In July of 2012, a mad man killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado theater. A segment of the news media immediately and incorrectly blamed “the Tea Party for the shooting with no evidence whatsoever. . . . What’s worse, the 24-7 ‘news’ coverage directly following the shooting was 90% speculation about every possible detail (most of which they got wrong) and a mantra of how tragically tragic, the tragedy was. If there is any single reason that America is in decline I say it is directly attributed to the majority of people in my profession who think their job is {to} tell people what to think and how to think rather than just reporting facts and letting the American people decide for themselves.” (Ref. 1).

     ABC news was in such a rush to report the Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre, that it incorrectly identified the shooter as a 52-year-old Hispanic Tea Party member, named John Holmes - the same name as the actual shooter. If ABC had paused just a bit and done a little honest journalistic research, they would have easily seen that the man they identified as the shooter did not even remotely resemble the actual shooter. “Embarrassing themselves is one thing. But this time a person’s good name was irreparably damaged. It should not have been difficult to determine that Colorado Tea Party member James Holmes was . . . not even close to the alleged shooter’s description.
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     “The media displayed the same irresponsible knee-jerk behavior following the shooting of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the crashing of a plane into the Austin IRS building, wildly speculating that both incidents must have been done by people with an axe to grind with the government.” (Ref. 2).

     On 28 June 2012, in another rush to be first rather than first gathering and assimilating the facts, CNN and Fox News both blundered. On that morning, “the Supreme Court announced its ruling on the Affordable Care Act. {Rushing to be first with the news,} CNN, which {had} been suffering in the ratings, and Fox both mistakenly reported that the individual mandate was struck down. . . . About 90 minutes after making the errors, CNN issued a correction that {said} it ‘regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate.’ Fox later released a statement about its coverage.” (Ref. 3).

     Back in September of 2009, CNN mistook a Coast Guard drill for an attack. On Sept. 11, of all days, CNN reported the following: “BREAKING NEWS: Suspicious boat in river near Obama in DC. Police scanner reports of shots fired. Circumstances unclear." The report resulted from a CNN reporter listening on a scanner to a “conversation about a training exercise taking place on the Potomac {River}. But the false alarm spread quickly {and} the network quickly corrected the report on-air shortly thereafter. Still, the White House wasn’t amused. Press secretary Robert Gibbs slapped CNN on the wrist, saying that ‘before we report things like this, checking would be good.’” (Ref. 4). Hear! Hear!

     While the rush to be first is a major reason for unreliable news reporting, there is another contributor – the need to sensationalize. “Despite dubious, anonymous sourcing and the total lack of evidence to implicate Occupy Wall Street protesters, the media jumped on {a} would-be scandal.
     “Media outlets scrambled over themselves . . . in an attempt to out-sensationalize one another after NBC New York reported that DNA found at an Occupy Wall Street protest matched DNA from the unsolved 2004 murder of Sarah Fox. The stories – and especially the accompanying headlines – reveal a blatant disregard for temperance, restraint, and fact-based reporting by virtually every outlet that covered the story.
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     “The various updates and corrections reveal volumes about how this story played out, but it's important to remember that the initial stories themselves were deeply flawed. Even without the later revelations, the framing of the reporting was unsubstantiated at best and blatantly false at worst.
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     “Despite the dubious, anonymous sourcing and the total lack of evidence to implicate Occupy Wall Street protesters, the media jumped on the would-be scandal.
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     “. . . the media failed in its coverage – not because they got the story wrong, but because even with the information they had they went for sensationalism instead of fact.” (Ref. 5) The truth that finally came out was that there was no link between the 2004 murder and the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The temptation to put out a sensational accusation was just too great for the New York press to let pass.

     In past decades, most western journalists took their responsibility to observe and report events in an impartial manner very seriously. Then along came television with an insatiable appetite for immediate imagery. Accuracy and thoughtfulness took a back seat to immediacy. The arrival of world-wide satellite communications and the internet has shortened or eliminated the time between the occurrence of an event to the reporting of that event. The time to think, to consider, to review, and to check the facts has shrunk dramatically. With western print media in long term decline and broadcasters in furious competition, the temptation to sensationalize and publish before the competition is enormous. Today, “news” and “facts” are increasingly replaced by “entertainment”, “shock” and “sensationalism”.

     Being “fustist with the mostest” is todays mantra in television, radio, internet and print news reporting. A decade ago, the late light night news was presented at 11:00 pm. Today, stations rush to broadcast their “late night news” at 10:00 pm or even 9:00 pm. Morning news on the radio and television used to start at 7:00 am. Now, I can listen to and see “early morning news” at 6:00 am, 5:00 am or even 4:00 am. One daily hears news item lead-in’s of “we are first to report” or “we have obtained an exclusive interview”. No one announces that “the following report has had the most thorough review of facts” or “the most complete analysis”. Unbiased reporting should be a requirement. Grab the viewer’s/listener’s/reader’s attention is much more important than providing the viewer/listener/reader with the real facts, or of providing a balanced analysis of the event. Once, the phrase “bad news sells” applied. Now, it’s “immediate and sensational bad news sells”.

     What’s driving journalistic standards these days? “Journalism is in peril. In fact, it always has been. There’s a reason people don’t trust journalists and corporate media – this profession is overshadowed by a bigger giant: money.
     “Every field has good and bad professionals. The good sometimes get recognition, but the bad ALWAYS do. But, I’m not here to talk about unethical journalists – we already know that they ruin the quality and credibility of the profession. . . . {Today} news media is ‘first and foremost a business.’” (Ref. 6)

     One reason given for the decline in journalistic quality is the shift from print media to on-line media – radio, TV, and internet. With this change, the sources of revenue for news media have shifted or, more importantly, dried up. Users don’t pay to receive the news as they did with newspapers and magazines. “So, the problem with more people reading online news is: news is not making money. Advertisers are switching to online with the transition in readership, which means newspapers (print and online) overall are getting less ad revenue. And, the ones that are making money are probably bombarding readers with in-your-face ads (you know the ones – pop-ups, obnoxious flashing ones, etc. – which cost more). When a business isn’t making money, they have to cut staff and/or lower wages. In this society, wage is a determining factor of how hard an employee is willing to work . . . If every year newsrooms and paychecks are shrinking, those willing to maintain their integrity under the pressure of the dollar may be harder to find. Increased workloads and less funding for original reporting can also affect the quality of reporting when revenue is cut. {Thus,} a decrease in advertising {revenue} can directly affect quality if a journalists’ wage is decreased.” (Ref. 6)

     Because the bottom line is so important today, the people in charge of our news media are NOT journalists.

     “There is one . . . case of where the business executives and the journalists of one newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, clashed. The Times got a new publisher . . . in 1999. On Oct. 10, 1999, the Times’ Sunday magazine published a 168 page spread dedicated to the new Staples Center in downtown L.A. What was not revealed, however, . . . was that the Times had made a business deal with the Staples Center, which included splitting advertising costs with the Center from the issue. Only after publishing did the journalists who wrote the ‘news’ stories find out about the business deal. . . . That arrangement constituted a conflict of interest and violation of the journalistic principle of editorial independence so flagrant that more than 300 Times reporters and editors . . . signed a petition demanding that their publisher . . . apologize and undertake a thorough review of all other financial relationships that {might} compromise The Times’ editorial heritage. One of the biggest problems in this issue . . . was that {the publisher} had a business background, not a journalism background. She had no knowledge of ethical journalistic practices so it didn’t even occur to her that there was a problem with agreeing to publish multiple articles on a business partner, profit-sharing with them, or having the articles have the appearance of news features.” A conclusion to be drawn here is that: “Having monetary decisions made that affect the quality of the news – in terms of transparency, especially – by people who are not held to the standards that journalists are is extremely detrimental to the profession.” (Ref. 6)

     Being bottom-line-driven means that news media must increase profit margins to keep their owners and investors satisfied. “Having to answer to advertisers and investors sets media organizations up for various problems such as conflicts of interest, censorship, corporate-level bias, etc. {As a result,} News corporations that chose to stray from the traditional advertising methods may be putting journalism at risk if there is the possibility of an ad looking like a news story.” (Ref. 6)

     One way for news media to cut costs is to reduce staff. “According to the American Society of News Editors’ annual newsroom census approximately 5,900 positions were eliminated during 2008, and 5,200 full-time newsroom positions were eliminated in 2009. . . . The total employment in American print newsrooms . . . dropped by around 14,900 {between 2000 and 2010}.
     “Although it is difficult to say how many of these full-time positions where classified exclusively as investigative journalists, The Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center found during it’s ‘State of the Media 2010’ report, that all these newsroom cuts and layoffs ‘[are] a pronounced drop in time-consuming investigative projects and serious day-to-day local accountability reporting.’
     “Investigative work or watchdog journalism, although mostly romanticized, often just includes a tenacity to go in-depth on issues that hold the powerful accountable on a daily basis. The estimated 30% drop indicated by the Pew Research Center means that there are fewer reporters to cover the growing number of stories.” (Ref. 7) As a result, accuracy and quality have declined and continue to do so.

     As reported in Reference 8, Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author stated what should be obvious to any intelligent viewer. He said: “Television journalism is largely a farce. Celebrity reporters, masquerading as journalists, who make millions a year give a platform to the powerful and the famous so they can spin, equivocate, and lie. Sitting in a studio, putting on makeup, and chatting with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, or Lawrence Summers has little to do with journalism. If you are a true journalist, you should start to worry if you make $5 million a year. No journalist has a comfortable, cozy relationship with the powerful. No journalist believes that serving the powerful is a primary part of his or her calling.” (Ref. 7)

     While some respectable journalists see their job as reporting only the facts, as exemplified by Walter Cronkite's famous line, "And that's the way it is." Others saw journalism as a path to personal power. Still other journalists have sought to expound their political and social views, i.e., that big business is evil and insensitive to the needs and aspirations of the little guy, and that government action on behalf of liberal, righteous causes is good. In broadcast journalism, there is the perceived need to produce stories and reports in hackneyed, formulaic ways that appeal to the lowest common denominator and hence attract the greatest number of viewers, enabling the station to maximize advertising revenue. Compounding this problem is the cult of the celebrity as it applies to television news anchors and newspaper pundits; once a journalist has reached the top of the profession, he or she is socially on par with other visible personalities and has immediate access to the rich, famous and powerful. Now endeared to the elite, they focus on maintaining this status instead of taking risks to break truly significant news.

     We also have journalists that have become the mouthpieces for East Coast white liberals, where their news writing and coverage reflect the social and political interests of the cultural elite. Too often these journalists see their jobs as the fulfillment of the mass media role to educate the proletariat masses, empowering them to eventually seize political control from the ruling capitalist bourgeoisie. As Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online observed, "If the apocalypse were nigh, the (New York) Times would run a headline 'World to End Tomorrow: Women, Blacks in Peril.'"

     Why should we care about bad journalism? We should care because good journalism is an essential public good. We need good journalism because it creates a value far beyond the revenue stream it generates. Good journalism creates a benefit to society as a watchdog on both the public and private sectors – exposing waste, fraud and abuse – and informing the public about important issues of public policy.

     A few suggestions: Get your facts straight before you report. Make sure you know all your facts before you start broadcasting. Check what you say/publish - being under a time crunch isn’t an excuse for misspellings or grammatical errors. Above all, be true to your principles and the highest journalistic standards.


  1. Tom Duggan;s Notebook – Irresponsible Media on the Colorado Shooting, tragic Tragedies, Tom Duggan, The Valley Patriot, Page 22, August 2012.
  2. We Are All “Disenfranchised” Now , Christine Morabito, The Valley Patriot, Page 31, August 2012.
  3. CNN, Fox News err in covering Supreme Court health care ruling, Jeff Sonderman, Poynter;, 28 June 2012; Updated 29 June 2012.
  4. Media blunders of 2009, Michael Calderone, Politico;, 31 December 2009.
  5. Rush to Sensationalize "Occupy Murder Link" Leads to Major Media Mistakes; Where are Retractions?, John Knefel, AlterNet;, 12 July 2012.
  6. Decline of quality journalism, Meagan Templeton-Lynch, 21st Century Journalist:, 02 May 2011.
  7. Investigative journalism in decline in U.S., Omar Lozano, Borderzine:, 27 August 2010.
  8. the long slow 'decline of journalism' dissolving into so many internet echo chambers, jamess, Daily KOS:, 04 June, 2011.

  13 September 2012 {Article 141; Undecided_26}    
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