Editor’s note: Herbert Gans is one of America’s preeminent sociologists, and some of his most notable work has come in examining the American news industry. His seminal 1979 book Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time was born out of years spent in newsrooms, watching how the never-ending flood of human activity was distilled into the news. Here he argues that journalists should rethink how they frame their work to focus more on the needs of a 21st-century democracy.
As journalists try to figure out how to overcome the economic problems wrought by the digital revolution, they should also be rethinking what they are and should be reporting — what they are telling and not telling the country about itself. An urgent beginning to such rethinking: how they cover American democracy and its problems. Some new ideas about how to report politics to the popular or mass news audience might even enable the news media to connect with new funding sources.
This particular rethinking might begin with a better understanding of journalism: as an early warning system, as a reassurance system, and as a panic preventative.
The news media enable their audiences to monitor their distant surroundings for harm and danger — the ones beyond those with which people can stay in personal touch. The popular — or non-elite — news media do even more, because even as they are reporting bad news, they also inform their audiences by implication that the rest of the physical, social, economic, political and moral order is free of immediate danger. Without such implied news, an informational vacuum would be created that would soon be filled with rumor and speculation, which in turn would likely result in panics and other forms of political and social chaos. Whether they know it or not, the news media protect the country, including its democratic institutions, from such chaos.
That said, the popular news media’s other contributions to democracy are more modest, for their regular political reporting is generally limited to top-down (and pegged) news: the decisions, actions, and speeches of top elected officials and the events in which they participate. Journalists may be a bulwark for democracy, but a bulwark is only a stationary obstacle. Because the popular news media limit themselves to covering top-down politics, they often pay little if any attention to the political processes that swirl under and around the bulwark. Only rarely do they report directly on the problems of and dangers to American democracy.
For example, today they say almost nothing about the long-run polarization of political parties, the disconnects between practical politics and ideological orthodoxy, the Senate’s nearly permanent filibuster, Congressional decision-making gridlock, voter suppression, and gerrymandering. Other problems include the increasing intrusion of the political economy into electoral politics, and the massive campaign donations of the very wealthy.
The peg-driven news format allows the news media to report instances when these problems manifest themselves dramatically — but that format prevents journalists from going into depth or discussing the causes of and solutions for democracy’s problems. These subjects are normally left to commentators and op-ed writers, but what they write is categorized as opinion even when it is easily proven fact. No wonder that a large portion of the public ascribes democracy’s problems to needless political squabbling.
Admittedly, journalists alone cannot make America more democratic. But they can turn democracy itself into a newsworthy topic. In so doing, they would sometimes have to set aside their defensive objectivity and their division of the political world into two sides, as well as the false equivalences this division can breed.
Last but not least, they would need to figure out how to create a mass audience for the kind of political news I am proposing. True, large audiences are ideologically diverse and may not want their beliefs challenged. Advertisers do not like to make audiences unhappy, and news firms rarely venture into politically controversial and economically risky areas.
Nonetheless, the attempt is worth making — perhaps for a time when more people are directly affected by democracy’s problems and are ready for more than peg-driven, top-down political news.
What should and can be done must be determined by journalists, and I can only make suggestions. None of the five sets of suggestions that follow are original, and someone — be it a legacy news platform, a commercial website, or a nonprofit group of journalists — is already doing some of what I am proposing.
Most of the suggestions are idealistic, even pie in today’s sky, but they are intended only to help restart a discussion of what journalism can do for democracy.
The first suggestion: Journalists must reintroduce the subject of journalism and democracy into their professional discourse, analyze what they have done in the past, and discuss what they might do in the future.
Journalists also have to consider how American politics has changed since modern journalism first formulated the conventions and norms for covering politics. Part of that discussion must include the criteria of newsworthiness that now apply and should apply, both to politics in general and to the problems of U.S. democracy specifically.
Journalism professors and their students could get the discussion going, bringing in political theorists, but ultimately practicing journalists must take over, since they will be creating the closer connection between journalism and democracy.
Second, journalists should broaden their political coverage in a variety of ways. To begin with, political reporting needs to move beyond its present emphasis on the top officialdom. For example, as long as lobbies and other organized interest groups continue to be influential, their doings, and their relations with government need to be covered more fully than is now the case. In fact, the political process could be covered as a set of dramas, most with beginnings, middles, and ends. The dramas could begin with how and why new legislation is initiated or new policies are invented; the middle act tells who does what for and against the proposed legislation or policy idea. The third act would not only report whether the idea was accepted or rejected, but also how and why the drama ended as it did.
For example, how and why lobbies assist in marking up legislation (and who inserts the unplanned loopholes that show up in so much legislation) is as newsworthy as the final vote on that legislation. So are the incentives and restraints that come into play as elected officials and their staffs make legislative and policy decisions.
Third, the news media must enlarge the casts of the political dramas they report. Journalists need to move beyond their current stance as reporters of the political status quo and stenographers of the powerful. They should be looking for articulate critics of the status quo, in and out of government, and they should regularly report on social movements and other aggregations of all ideological stripes which are trying to bring about changes.
What these movements are doing and saying will rarely be headline news, and many will disappear without making an impact. But some might someday turn into large popular movements. In the meantime, journalists need to report on what they want to do, and how they seek to change their community or the country.
Further, journalists must offer more reporting of democracy’s prime constituency, the citizenry — what I have called citizen news. Since the organized citizenry becomes newsworthy now when it shows up in national politics, more coverage is needed of the unrepresented and unorganized citizenry, including the 40 percent or more who fail to vote in national elections.
Fourth, since most political news takes the form of political communication — what politicians are telling us — the factualness, accuracy, and relevance of that communication should be newsworthy, as newsworthy as political decisions and speeches. At present, political communication is free to evade the accepted rules of truth and trustworthiness; it is freer than commercial advertising to exaggerate, deceive (and self-deceive), and lie. Democracy deserves better.
Journalists already have one weapon, fact checking, and what is in effect a professionals’ social movement is underway to improve and broaden the practice. Slowly but surely, it is also being extended beyond political advertising to check the sources that supply most of the political news from day to day.
Journalists cannot easily tell whether news sources intend to lie or are lying to themselves, but motive is less important than effect. If what news sources, even “senior White House officials,” do or say is misleading, journalists should be free to use their fact-checking powers. This is particularly necessary when political rhetoric feeds into or reinforces inaccuracies that people want to believe.
Fifth, if event-driven news is to be supplemented by news about the political process, the popular news media need to resort more often to analytic journalism. Political beat reporters with intensive and extensive knowledge of their beat should be encouraged to do analytic and interpretive stories about the political institutions they cover and the political processes taking place in them. Such stories should analyze how and why political decisions and other actions come out the way they do, and when, how, and why democracy is being short changed.
If analytic stories appear regularly, they may help to inform the news audience about the normal working of politics — and also provide it with the political education they should have received in school.
Analytic journalism is currently produced mainly by magazine article and book writers who tell their stories as recent history. Journalists should be writing the first drafts of such analytic histories so that the news audience can be informed while political processes are still unfolding and before important decisions are made.
Journalists will have to learn how to produce analytic journalism for the popular news audience, most of which does not read political books or magazine articles. A good deal of experimenting may be needed before analytic journalism that reaches its intended audience can be perfected.
The news for democracy I have in mind ought to appear regularly, but it does not need to be daily or even weekly; its frequency, like everything else, must be determined by the need to reach and hold a popular audience. The format and content should probably be designed from the start for the Internet, preferably for websites that can attract this audience.
Consequently, it can be even be scheduled for sites also devoted to entertainment fare, just as the television networks once scheduled documentaries between entertainment programs. In fact, combining analytic journalism with entertainment might encourage other innovators to develop docudramas or entertainment programs that pursue some of analytic journalism’s aims.
Furthermore, for many decades, entertainment fare has subsidized informational fare, and eventually media firms should be able to do so even on the Internet. However, if journalists can expand their field to include news for democracy, the news media doing so might attract new funding sources in the foundation and nonprofit world, as well as from government. In fact, if news serves as a public rumor and panic-prevention institution, a case can be made that government should help to fund it.
American journalists have traditionally objected to being funded by government, for good reasons as well as bad ones. But if, as we are now learning, private enterprise has trouble making money from the news, it either forces the journalists it does not fire to raise their productivity to unreasonable heights, sensationalize the news, or both.
In that case, government funding may be a more desirable alternative — and like other publicly funded professions before them, journalists will figure out how to protect themselves and their audiences from interference.