The government “to a very large degree, is setting the news agenda” in the US, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. Nearly eight in ten stories filed by journalists Pew studied were “triggered by something someone in the government said or did” rather than by enterprise reporting (i.e., journalism a news organization initiates), which Pew found accounted for about one in eight stories.
The report takes a sustained, quantified look at the composition of the DC press corps, and the reports some of its members filed in a given time period. One rather striking finding is that journalists based in Washington are more likely to focus their coverage on the government, and the political fortunes of those in it, rather than on the communities many of them serve.
Pew looked at stories published in eight newspapers between February and May 2015 and found that almost half of them “were written in a way that mainly addressed the impact on the government or individual politicians, such as a story about [President] Obama’s request for US troops to combat ISIS, which focused mainly on relations between the president and Congress.” Thirty-four percent of the stories, Pew found, “focused mainly around the impact on citizens.”
By contrast, only about a quarter of the Washington stories filed by staff based outside DC focused on politicians.
Some may find these findings an opportunity for vigorous hand-wringing, but they raise interesting questions about theories of media bias.
The traditional conservative critique of the US news media holds that the press acts as an unofficial wing of the Democratic Party (except, presumably, representatives of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, the most popular cable news channel in the country and one of the US’s highest-circulation newspapers, respectively). A more nuanced critique, found at the right-wing outlet Washington Free Beacon, for example, holds that mainstream reporters generally work to be fair and accurate but often pursue stories and narratives that reflect a not-always-conscious left-wing bias.
And then there’s what one might call the meta-critique, expressed by the critic Jay Rosen, which is that the a permanent DC press corps is fundamentally unable to perform adversarial journalism: Beat reporters require access to sources. Sources tend to freeze out reporters who stray from the cowpath.
But workload may contribute as well. DC correspondents for news organizations based elsewhere accounted for only 8 percent of their home publication’s coverage of the federal government. (Italics added to indicate a figure that may prompt newspaper publishers from around the country to give their iPads a fatal whack on their exercise bikes.) “Some of this may speak to the practical limitations of what any one correspondent can do,” the report reads, “as many newspapers with any kind of Washington presence today get by with just one correspondent.” More than half of the stories about the federal government in news organizations with a DC bureau came not from their Washington correspondent but from wire services—stories from the news co-op Associated Press, for example, or syndicated stories from other outlets.
Still, stories by DC correspondents tend to get better play back home, Pew found, and have potentially more impact locally—”the mere fact that a senator knows his or her actions are being reported back to voters, the deep institutional knowledge a correspondent accrues over time, and the relationships a correspondent may form with those who pull the power levers.”
But do those relationships benefit readers? If they result in horse-racy coverage, no—unless readers are in fact more interested in who’s up and who’s down in DC rather than how the government’s actions might affect their own lives. But local news organizations that have someone in DC may inspire more accountability. For editors at those publications, this suggests a way forward: Let the wire services handle the day-to-day stuff. Set your reporters loose on enterprise stories that put the fear of God into your state’s representatives daily. And make attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner a firing offense.