Crap Journalism

Editor & Publisher, which is sort of the house organ for the newspaper industry, covered a lecture that media critic Eric Alterman delivered at Northwestern’s journalism school earlier this week. What E&P distilled from the talk: “Alterman: Journalism Obsessed by ‘Crap’ “:

“Alterman lamented that important stories such as the abuse at the U.S. military’s Abu Gharib [sic] prison in Iraq are ‘one-week stories’ at best, while attention is lavished on sagas such as the Scott Peterson murder trial.

” ‘Journalists are responsible for that, in part because they have become part of the permanent government, and in part because we’ve become so addicted to the spectacle,’ he said. ‘I do think the media are to be blamed for devoting so much of their space to crap.’ ”

It’s not a new complaint, and it’s certainly easy enough to find your own pet examples if you’re so inclined. Here’s one arbitrary (and ultra-unscientific) index: The number of news stories on the following keywords, as captured by Google News since January 31, the day after the vote in Iraq:

Michael Jackson (any story that mentions that exact name): 14,700

Iraq casualties (any story that mentions both Iraq and casualties): 6,760

Iraq election (both terms): 71,200

Social Security (exact phrase): 69,200

Iran nuclear (both terms): 30,700

CBS Survivor (both terms): 661

Grammys: 4,690

NYPD Blue (exact phrase): 473

Pope John Paul (exact phrase): 17,200

oil prices (exact phrase): 21,300

Christo: 1,830

Hunter S. Thompson (exact name): 1,870

Jose Canseco (exact name): 7,520

Barry Bonds (exact name): 5,240

Condoleezza Rice (exact name): 40,500

Paris Hilton (exact name): 2,710

swimsuit issue (exact phrase): 153

tsunami: 72,700

Actually, I have to say that I’m a little surprised. I expected Michael Jackson to win hands down; and I was appalled but not shocked after running the second search, Iraq casualties, and finding it has appeared less than half as frequently as the child-molestation suspect’s name (hundreds of Iraqis and nearly 50 U.S. soldiers have perished this month). Maybe if one factored in broadcast coverage, things would look a little different. But overall, the more serious journalistic subjects seem to outweigh the crap obsessions, at least in the news sources that Google indexes.

Maybe the problem — the problem implicit in comments like Alterman’s is that our schlock-focused media have turned the public into an ill-informed mob — runs a little deeper than journalists being obsessed by crap. We know that all the information that’s out there isn’t of the highest quality. Lots of it is lazy. Lots of it is hurried. Lots of it lacks meaningful context. Lots of it is polluted by spin. But part of the deal in a world awash in information — or in the grander marketplace of ideas that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote about in 1919 — is that news consumers need to do a little bit of independent brain work to put the puzzle of their world together. To the extent that’s not happening, it’s a problem both among the information producers and the consumers. Which shouldn’t be a shock, really, since they’re largely the same people.

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