Why Journalists Fail

The first time I ever supervised workers could have been a disaster. I was hired to train and supervise a group of undergraduates who were reading news articles and then answering various questions about the content. It’s a common research method in communications, with well-established training protocols. You go over expectations, then give everyone a few articles to review individually. The supervisor (me) looks over initial work to see how well the new employees understand what they’ve been asked to do. I got a group of undergraduates who couldn’t even agree whether the article was printed on the top half of the page!

How could half the students get this question wrong? A lot of the questions in content analysis are subjective. For example, is this story portraying someone negatively? That’s why communication scholars require multiple coders to review the same article – they want to see how much coders agree. This story was printed at the top of the page. Every coder should be able to say so! Was I stuck with a group where half the students were lazy? Stupid? Unable to follow simple directions? Was I going to have to tell the professor supervising the project that he needed to fire some people?

The professor wanted me to meet with the undergrads as a group before I gave any additional individual feedback. I didn’t know the team, so I decided not to start the meeting by yelling and screaming. Instead, I asked them what their experience was like doing the work and answering questions in the online form we provided. The undergrads immediately brought up several problems with the form. Almost every question was on one long page, so they had to keep scrolling down. No one knew how to answer “is this coverage positive or negative?” for the story that contained both positive and negative portrayals of the featured politician. After 20-30 minutes I asked about the “is this story at the top of the page?” debacle. Everyone said yeah its at the top of the page. Then one student pointed out this question was one item in a series of checkboxes. It wasn’t a mandatory yes-no question, so they completely missed it.

By the end of the meeting I was convinced that these undergraduates all worked hard, but they were put in a position where dedication was unlikely to pay off with good work. I told the professor that the problem was with the form, and we came up with a long list of changes. The team’s attitude was a little worse for the second round of training – it’s hard to have as much enthusiasm the second time around – but they did much better work since now we put them in a position to succeed. There’s an important story here about how to lead and inspire employees to get the most out of them, particularly when working with a new team. (Of course, there are also times when it’s important to crack the whip, but I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus here.)

I think this story is also a powerful metaphor for how we tend to think of journalism. The easiest thing to do is to look at journalists’ final work product and then pick apart the failings. It’s easy to get mad because most journalism will have imperfections. But does this mean journalists themselves are lazy, stupid or immoral? Are journalists put in a position where it is hard to succeed? To see a columnist wrestling with both possibilities, let’s turn to Jim Newell of Slate discussing Trump’s press conference a week ago at the opening of Trump’s new hotel. Reporters expected direct Q&A about whether Trump was going to renounce his claim that Obama was born outside the United States, but got something different:

“It was about 10 minutes in, after two or three introductory speakers and an enthusiastic plug from Donald Trump for his new downtown property, that the cry of Admiral Ackbar began sounding in the core of my being. It’s a trapI’m an extra in a bad commercial.


Things went very differently. The press conference proved instead to be Trump’s troll of the media, a rick-roll—as everyone called it later—on the grand scale. It was effortlessly brought off and all it required was a manipulation of media incentives and cable news control-room politics, plus a carefully arranged use of space and taxpayer-funded security detail. You can have all your earnest thinkpieces about false balance and the like; Trump’s event on Friday was enacted media criticism.”

It’s the last line that gets me. Most of Newell’s piece is about the Trump campaign’s strategy and how they took advantage of a predictable opponent. Media criticism generally implies moral arguments about how journalists are doing a bad job and should have done something else. My friends who shared Newell’s story portrayed the event as a journalistic moral failure. But Newell’s main point is that journalists were set up to fail. He, along with every other journalist covering the event, eventually realized it. Then they got angry and tried “small” measures of revenge. In my experience this revenge isn’t always “small,” – if Newell is like I was then he’d want to do more to Trump’s team than just write this column.

As I’ve implied in previous posts, its very hard to get people to think strategically about journalism. Audiences want to see bad journalism as a moral failure, not a strategic failure based on journalists’ limited access to information. If reporters knew what Trump was going to do, they’d exclude him. But since there was a chance that Trump would give a major story, every national reporter had to take a chance on him. For all we know, if most media outlets anticipated the Trump trap and stayed away, Trump may have gone ahead with a straight-forward news conference to shame the media. It’s easy to put journalists in a bad position, particularly when audiences will just read the news story and then blame the media.

Maybe it’s easier for me to accept when journalists lose a competition with politicians because I’ve lost many times. Maybe it’s because I’m a baseball fan, and I know even the best major league baseball team loses at least 1/3 of its games. The other side has pros too, and sometimes they win. That’s why I taught students to look under the hood and think about how people work, not just the final product. If you want better journalism, don’t just yell and scream about it. Think of ways to put journalists in a better position. I think one of the most effective options would be to pay more for higher quality content – essentially paying journalists to be selective and not to write up every minor event to fulfill quotas and generate hits.


About Noah Grand

PhD in Sociology. I use statistics to predict news coverage. And home runs. View all posts by Noah Grand

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