Information needs people

I love Jay Rosen‘s formulation of a really important assumption for many journalism critics: Weak is the need for current information without a strong culture of participation.

So important.

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What have we learned about business journalism?

I hadn’t noticed before, when reading about surveys, whether the questioners spoke only with “heads of households … who participate in financial decisions” (or something to that effect) A recent study from the Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism did just that, and this time I noticed the caveat.

The Reynolds Center wanted to know where people received their economic news and how strong they found the coverage. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they thought the coverage was “good” or “excellent,” compared to 38 percent who found it “fair,” “poor,” or weren’t sure.

So I’m wondering about a couple of things.

The first is brief: How much is this study actually telling us — what can we use it for? Should we try to base any judgements about the quality of journalism based on such a sample size?

The second is the subject of what follows: Given that the study asked only heads of households whose family made more than $50k per year, could we have expected any other response?

Those families likely depended, to at least some extent, on the existing economic system for their relative success. If economists are correct in how they portray humans, then the families would have little interest in moving the country toward a more progressive system of taxation or resource distribution. So I can’t see how interested they would be in stories that introduced alternative forms of economic theories (“While the debate in DC rages, a small group of economists has a far different prescription…”).

In that respondents were mostly happy with the coverage, then, what were they seeing? Probably stories that did nothing to significantly challenge the status quo. (I don’t think this conclusion is too controversial — but you could start a great discussion with any of these.*)

What the human interest stories — the ones profiling families and towns watching jobs and home sales shrivel? I admit, those stories challenge the wisdom of our political economy.

But I don’t expect those to have an effect either. I return to the sample size: middle-to-upper-class heads of households. If they perceive that a drastic shift in financial policy would go against their interests, why should we expect journalists’ tales to elicit more than a hint of sympathy? I wonder whether the stories will more likely be forgotten quickly.

If the journalists involved have reported their stories with at least some assumption that what they document should be addressed, and if the stories are forgotten quickly, then why should a journalist bother? They could be more efficacious working for a public policy group or their local governments.

* Alternatively, for a really poor way to argue this point, try Robert Cirino’s book.

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