Stealth journalism: What does it mean if people don’t want to – and won’t – engage in government?

Although most Americans like having the option to participate in government when they mood strikes them, they usually have no interest in becoming more involved. Most people aren’t interested in debate or policy.

Increasing the ability for people to meet with others to discuss issues does not result in better decisions, citizens who are more considerate of others, or increased citizen satisfaction in how decisions are made.

People would be OK with a government run by unaccountable elites so long as those elites were empathetic towards citizens and did not act for personal gain.

I just finished reading about these and other conclusions in Stealth Democracy, by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse.

To the extent the above are true — and the authors are quick to point out that their work is quite far from definitive — what, if any, are the implications for journalism?

I think there are probably many. But this book is becoming one where I think about it so much after reading it, everything becomes mentally cloudy. I’m sure in the future the book will come up, probably multiple times (I’m already formulating another post on it). Possibly in a late-night what-does-it-all-mean offering. For now, here’s something simpler, albeit still slightly incoherent.

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse offer the following reasoning for why Americans are continually dissatisfied with government:

• Most people will avoid confronting disagreement when possible
• Most people think everybody agrees on the answers to problems confronting their communities and country
• When people see politicians disagree, therefore, they feel it must be because there is some other interest (a corrupting “special interest”) affecting their judgment. Otherwise, because the agreement among citizens is so obvious, politicians would have taken action on those problems already

This is a rough sketch of their argument. There is much more nuance and empirical data to it.

Even within these outlines, though, is one way journalists can help address the situation as the authors describe it.* Simply put: Journalists can work to broaden perspectives.

One way journalists could help is by increasing the diversity of sources — of race, class, background, and viewpoint — in their work. But this sounds familiar. Journalists have been trying to improve on this for years (though they certainly have improvements they could make). Plus, just tossing more information into the fray runs straight into Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s argument that more information rarely helps the situation, no matter how well-constructed it is. Increasing the variety of reasons or sources for people to consider (or, in this case, getting people to realize those viewpoints exist in the first place) often degrades, instead of nourishes, a deliberation, they argue. I can imagine many people, such as, based on the interview in this book, Amy Goodman, would seriously take issue with this claim.

Yet one of the authors’ prescriptions for addressing Americans’ attitudes is increasing their awareness of the diversity of attitudes in their midst — thus attacking the second bullet point listed above, and undermining the assumption that it should be easy for politicians to formulate a plan of action.

So what can a journalist can do? Dedicate entire weeks of newspapers, or Web content, to introducing people to different theories? Move the editorial pages to the 1A? Create a new section of the Web site explicitly to promote diverse viewpoints (certainly you can find infinite numbers of them on the Web. Respectable ones, too).

But then don’t you run into another of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s arguments: People don’t like debate conflict, and they usually become even more dissatisfied participating in contentious decision-making than they did before? Putting debate and disagreement into peoples’ lives has precisely the opposite effect from what we’d hope. They do not engage. They hit the TV listings.

It may be that journalists are simply out of luck. It may be the time to introduce people to diversity is only when they’re young. Possibly in college, when they’re removed from the atmosphere of their youth. At neither of those times, I am assuming here, do journalists bestow much effort on the young (and they’re not often paying customers, so why would they?).

But having missed the opportunity, perhaps they should not expect their well-written profiles and feature stories, or even inclusion of more voices on the Web, to do much for appreciating diversity.

* If, in fact, it needs to be addressed at all — an argument they would question, and one I’m thinking about a lot more now as well. Never mind the entirely separate argument one would need to say this is a journalist’s responsibility to worry about in the first place.

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I don’t know enough about Politico’s audience

This Columbia Journalism Review article I heard about from @ccadelago has a lot of truth to it, I think, but I wonder whether it should come with an important caveat in its use of to argue “the life cycle of a story is no longer the simple reporting-writing-editing-publication; it’s now reporting-writing-editing-publication-syndication-conversation.”

That seems more true when you’re fighting for people who are tapped into a flood of information online. I’m thinking people who have some time, maybe an interest in politics, and who care about HuffPost and Drudge.

But what about everybody else? How useful is Garber’s argument for a local news organization whose audience is comprised of people seeking some specific information about their community — and then going off to knit? These news organizations don’t have nearly the competition of the DC media world. Need they be as gung-ho as Politico for Web eyeballs? For, as the article suggests, Politico’s strategy has implications for the kind of coverage that emanates from it.

And not having read the New Republic article yet, I’m not sure what it concludes the Politico’s goals are apart from, as Garber mentions, is “to be the most talked-about and cited in that day’s news cycle.”

But I still feel I can ask: Which news cycle is that? Who’s paying attention to it and what are their demands?

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Some questions about Kachingle

I just finished Steve Outing’s column on Kachingle, which he’s pushing as a better solution for news organizations to make money online. He doesn’t suggest it’s the end-all savior, only that it’s better than micropayments, which has been bandied around a lot lately.

I’ll leave you to read his whole explanation of Kachingle for yourself, but my slimmed down version is:

• You sign up for Kachingle by paying $x a month
• Publishers sign up for Kachingle
• You decide how much of x dollars, if any, you want to go to Kachingle-elibiglbe sites.
• Publishers have to convince you to give them money

I think Kachingle can be successful in that it plays on laziness. My suspicion is people are more likely to pay one fee per month than sign up for multiple different accounts and make different payments.

But Kachingle raises a lot of interesting questions, too.

How will people decide how much to donate? Not in the sense of, “Paypal or money order,” but what calculus will they use to decide, “here’s how much I want to pay for my content each month”? Surely there are similar systems with other products that we might be able to study. Perhaps other industries’ experiences will tell us that most people don’t pay more than the minimum. If so, can we really expect bigger organizations to survive on, say, 100,000 payments of a few cents per month?

How will advertisers react? Will they flock to companies that can prove they have a solid Kachingle following, slowly choking off ad revenue to lesser publishers?

How soon can it be rolled out — and is that fast enough?

Finally, I worry that what I said above about people’s willingness to pay one lump sum over many smaller sums may not be true in this situation. For one, you need a population that reads a lot of online content from Kachingle-affiliated publishers, because I assume readers would not understand why they need to pay one company when they want content from another.

And then, if course, I’m creating an ambiguity for myself in using the word “successful.” Does “successful” mean that Kachingle survives? That The New York Times could make the same money it does now? That the Anyblogger USA will make a little extra income?

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Which tragedies? Thinking about the Buffalo plane crash

Why was the Buffalo plane crash news? Why aren’t the small plane crashes in other countries news here? And why not the suicide bombings?

I know I’m not the first one to ask these questions, and I certainly don’t think I have much original to say about them. In fact, I actually can think of some reasons why we should pay more attention to information that comes out after a crash in our country than a crash elsewhere. Safety regulation, for one — we can’t easily make comparisons between how a plane might fare here versus, say, Russia, because the regulatory structure is different.

But why the crash itself? Why is it BIG NEWS and tragedies from another country not?

Is it news media reflecting a lack of cosmopolitanism in their readers and viewers? For me, someone dying in a plane crash in Russia, or ferry capsizing in Bangladesh, is as tragic as someone dying in a crash here. Is it that others don’t feel the same way, and that media respond to those feelings? I know if I were a newspaper editor, I wouldn’t put a ferry crash on the front page if I wanted to keep my job.

Still, how many people would say they care less about the life of a Bangladeshi than they do an American? Is it unfair to assume that most people, when confronted with the situation, would say “yeah, I guess I feel pretty bad for both of them.” Sure, I can think of plenty of Americans who would say they’d choose to protect their family over some national’s. But this is a different situation in that for most of us, our families are not involved here. Most of us are observers.

From here, I see two initial options.

1. Our news media are missing a golden opportunity for profit. If they have enjoyed success from extensively broadcasting tragic accidents on our own soil, they would enjoy similar success by presenting worldwide tragedy in the same way.

2. Most U.S. citizens (or U.S. reporters) are nationalistic and don’t care very much about the fates of people in other countries. It is therefore a better business decision for news media to largely ignore other tragedies.

The second response seems more plausible to me. But then, still, when I think about it, I can’t imagine many people not expressing some sympathy or interest in fate’s intersection into others’ lives. Do they, perhaps, simply need a news media nudge that’s currently missing (and would be harder to provide traditionally with fewer foreign bureaus*?

* Fleeson, Lucinda. “Bureau of Missing Bureaus.” American Journalism Review (2003): 32-39.

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Welcome to the Academic Wannabe

This is a new blog, so come back soon for more.

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