Click the following links to explore the sources behind the information presented in the Support Reporting video. Note: The FCC was not involved in the production of the video.
Several studies have attempted to study whether the proliferation of articles has been a result of more reporting. They each find the same thing: most of the increase in volume is based on repurposing of content from a few sources.
They found 53 different outlets. That’s a lot. It would not seem to be a city suffering a shortage of journalism. But then they analyzed all the stories on city affairs: 95 percent of the stories—including those in the new media—were based on reporting done by traditional media (mostly the Baltimore Sun). And those sources were doing less than they had done in the past. Several other studies have had similar findings.
Researchers at the Nieman Journalism Lab looked at 121 distinct stories listed on Google News about attempts to hack into Google from China. They found that only 13 “contained some amount of original reporting” and only “one was produced by a primarily online outlet.” The other 100-plus stories were essentially rewrites, summaries, and links to or rehashes of reporting done by a handful of outlets.
In 2009, Michigan State University researchers looked at 6,811 articles in 466 outlets in 98 cities and concluded that traditional media sources were responsible for 88.6 percent of the news about city governments and 93 percent about suburban governments.
Nate Silver, a statistician and blogger at The New York Times, did a search for the phrase “reported” after the name of a news outlet—as in, “the Chicago Tribune reported”— to see who was providing the underlying information chewed over by the rest of the Internet. Of the top 30 most-cited sources, 29 were traditional news-media outlets (the one exception being gossip site TMZ). (Also see Steven Waldman, Why the Huffington Post Can’t Replace the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Jan. 12, 2009.)
The following material is taken from page 10 of “Information Needs of Communities,” a report produced by the FCC.
Newspaper advertising revenue dropped 47 percent from 2005 to 2009.
Between 2006 and 2009, daily newspapers cut their annual editorial spending $1.6 billion per year, or more than a quarter, according to the Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds.
Staff at daily newspapers has shrunk by more than 25 percent since 2006, with some major newspapers seeing half their staffs disappear in a matter of a few years. There are about as many journalists working today as there were before Watergate.
Television network news staffs have declined by half from the late 1980s.
Newsmagazine reporting staffs have dropped by almost half since 1985.
The number of all-news local radio stations has dropped from 50 in the mid-1980s to 30, which reach a third of the country.
Only about 20 to 30 percent of the population has access to a local all-news cable channel.
There are 520 local TV stations that air no local news at all (258 commercial stations and 262 noncommercial stations). Considering those, along with stations that air less than 30 minutes of local news per day, 33 percent of commercial stations currently offer little or no local news.
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 16:
But so far these new websites are not large enough or self-sustaining enough to fill the gaps left by newspaper layoffs. In a recent survey of 66 local news websites, half reported that their organizations drew in annual income of less than $50,000, and three-quarters reported annual income of less than $100,000. That is not a typographical error; it is annual income for the whole website.
The nonprofit online news sector may be vibrant, but it is small in scale. The Knight Foundation hosted a recent gathering of leaders from 12 of the most influential and well-funded websites. Together they employ 88 full-time staffers, which seems quite encouraging until one remembers that more than 15,000 journalists have left the newspaper industry in the last decade (and 13,000 left in the last four years alone.)
Another point of reference: while newspapers have been suffering an estimated $1.6 billion drop in editorial spending per year, foundations have contributed an estimated $180 million to fund new online ventures over a period of five years. Billions out, millions in.
In addition to the local websites, there are a handful of national Internet companies making major efforts to serve local communities. Examiner.com has sites in 233 cities, deploying 67,000 “examiners” to write on local topics. But these part-timers focus on lifestyle topics, such as entertainment, retail, and sports—not on hard news. AOL’s Patch has created local websites in 800 communities, hiring a reporter-editor in each location—meaning that Patch has likely hired more reporters than any other media organization in the past two years. In the wake of the AOL merger with Huffington Post, founder Arianna Huffington maintained that a major reason for her interest in this deal was to do more for local news and information. On the other hand, AOL executives in the past have stressed that to succeed financially, they must focus their efforts on affluent areas. And a single editor wearing many hats, even working with volunteer contributors, will usually not have time to do full-time enterprise reporting on par with the best of traditional urban dailies—though he or she may well match or better the efforts of local community newspapers. In other words, Examiner, Patch, and companies like them add tremendous value to the media ecosystem, but they also leave many crucial gaps unfilled.
Michele McLellan, who has studied the digital news scene comprehensively for the University of Missouri journalism school, writes, ‘The tired idea that born-on-the-Web news sites will replace traditional media is wrong-headed, and it’s past time that academic research and news reports reflect that.’
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 44:
J-Lab: the Institute for Interactive Journalism, a center that funds journalism innovation, studied the Philadelphia news “ecosystem” during sample weeks in 2006 and 2009. In a report on its findings, author Jan Shaffer, formerly an editor at the Inquirer, concluded that “available news about Philadelphia public affairs issues has dramatically diminished over the last three years by many measures: news hole, air time, story count, key word measurements.” She summarized interviews she did with civic leaders: “People in Philadelphia want more public affairs news than they are now able to get. They don’t think their daily newspapers are as good as the newspapers used to be. They want news that is more connected to their city.”
Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina: When Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser published The News about the News in 2002, they lavished special praise on the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer:
“The News & Observer stands out from most American newspapers because of its ambition and its execution…. Raleigh, its region, and the state of North Carolina are all better communities because the News & Observer is their paper. The paper challenges resident officials to confront serious issues. it creates a sense of shared experience that strengthens the connections among individuals and institutions in its area. Not incidentally, it enables readers to know what’s happening that could affect their lives.”
But the News & Observer is no longer the same paper. Professor James Hamilton of Duke University (a consultant to the Future of Media project) studied changes at the News & Observer and found that its newsroom of 250 employees in 2004 had been reduced to 132 in 2009. By February 2011, the newsroom headcount was down to 103. Among the beats the paper stopped covering full time: Durham courts, Durham schools, legal affairs, agriculture, science, environment, and statewide public education. And among the losses in staff were a “workplace reporter” who once produced stories on illegal immigrants in North Carolina, visa violations, and companies that evaded unemployment tax payments; a full-time banking reporter who had written about predatory lending in the state and about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s mortgage ties in the Research Triangle Park, a well-known high-tech research and development center; a full-time tech reporter who had covered the many high-tech companies in the Research Triangle Park; and a pharmaceutical reporter who covered local drug and health companies. “With all those full-time reporters gone, the odds of similar series and stories being written have declined,” Hamilton concluded.
Repercussions like those Hamilton observed in North Carolina are evident at newspapers throughout the country: Many staff cutbacks have occurred on beats that had enormous civic impact but lacked sexy, marketable stories. As editors prune beats to leave only those that generate buzz—or, in the case of websites, traffic—they are tempted to serve fewer portions of “broccoli journalism,” i.e. stories that might be both unpopular but good for you.
What you tend to cut is the day in, day out, beat reporting—or the city council meeting, or doing three days of reporting on the immigration bill instead of one,” says Mark Silverman, editor of the (Nashville) Tennessean. “There’s less time to invest in in-depth coverage.”
(For more, see the FCC report’s chapter, How Big Is the Local Reporting Gap and Who Will Fill It?, starting at page 262.)
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 245:
In some ways, the Internet has increased the influence of press releases. Wally Dean, a longtime TV news executive, says that stations often refer to people as “beat reporters” when really they are just the point person for press releases on a particular topic. “Frequently the so-called health reporter fronts the health news but is using handouts from the health industry or using material from one of the feeds coming into the TV station,” Dean says.
In the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum described a company that put out a press release with a false claim about a new deal it had made with record labels. Major news outlets, such as the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, AP, and Reuters, among many others, published the story without verification. While most outlets followed up with corrections, few of them posted the correction along with their original article, and thus the “uncorrected version continued to proliferate on overseas news websites…. And that can only lead to grief, thanks to the magic of Google caches and message boards, where original copies of the story can still be found.” Chittum explained, “Events move so fast that there often seems to be little time to check facts, and announcement-based reporting is given too much prominence.”
Amy Mengel, head of inbound marketing for public relations firm readMedia, wrote about this issue on a message board dedicated to public relations topics: “Newsrooms have been gutted and, particularly at the local level, journalists rely on press releases…to help them fill their ever-increasing news hole.” By one estimate, the ratio of public relations professionals to journalists is now four to one, compared with one to one just 30 years ago.
In fact, public relations professionals increasingly use the Internet to get press releases directly into the hands of consumers, bypassing reporters entirely. Bernadette Morris, president and CEO of Black PR Wire, says that the press release “is no longer just a media relations tool; it is now widely read online, in addition to the eyes it attracts via traditional delivery inside the newsroom.” A survey of PR professionals conducted by PR News and PRWeb found that 24 percent now view the consumer as the direct target of press releases.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a press release or with public relations efforts. These have always been a part of the news flow, and there was never a time when every press release was cross-checked by a reporter. But as the number of reporters declines, the balance shifts toward the institutions that call the press conference or issue the press release.
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 50:
In the report and on HealthNewsReview.org, complaints abound from seasoned reporters who lament the growth of “press release reporting” and the lack of time they have to check out the veracity of information contained in a press release. Twenty eight percent of health reporters said that they personally get story ideas from public relations firms or marketing outreach somewhat or very often. Among those who work on at least some web content, half said that having to work across different media has resulted in less time and attention for each story, and 59 percent said it meant that they work longer hours.
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 86:
From 1998 to 2001, [Tom] Rosenstiel said, the percentage of stories generated by “enterprise reporting” (for example, digging into the details of city, county, or state records; asking bold questions of elected officials or corporate leaders) as opposed to stories based on press releases, chasing the action on the police scanner, or following a story already in the local newspaper, fell by 30 percent.
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 94:
In 2006, the media and consumer watchdog group the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) released a report titled “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed,” which found that over a 10-month period 77 broadcast stations and cable outlets ran 98 separate instances of 36 VNRs, without disclosing to viewers that these were video press releases rather than journalism independently created by local news teams.
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 55:
As newsrooms have shrunk, the job of the remaining reporters has changed. They typically face rolling deadlines as they post to their newspaper’s website before, and after, writing print stories. Some are required to blog and tweet as well, some to produce videos. The good news is, they can write shorter, more focused stories for the print edition of the paper and provide longer, more detailed versions online that can be enhanced and updated as events progress. However, these additional responsibilities—and having to learn the new technologies to execute them—are time-consuming, and come at a cost. In many newsrooms, old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting—the kind where a reporter goes into the streets and talks to people or probes a government official—has been sometimes replaced by Internet searches.
Newspapers have tried to become more like the new medium—emphasizing speed and dissemination through multiple platforms. But that drive can take a toll on quality. In an article in the Columbia Journalism Review in the fall of 2010, Dean Starkman likened newspaper reporters to hamsters on a wheel:
The hamster wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The hamster wheel is volume without thought. it is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no… . But it’s more than just mindless volume. it’s a recalibration of the news calculus. Of the factors that affect the reporting of news, an under-appreciated one is the risk/reward calculation that all professional reporters make when confronted with a story idea: how much time versus how much impact?
This informal vetting system is surprisingly ruthless and ultimately efficient for one and all. The more time invested, the bigger the risk, but also the greater potential glory for the reporter, and the greater value to the public (can’t forget them!). Do you fly to Chicago to talk to that guy about that thing? Do you read that bankruptcy examiner’s report? Or do you do three things that are easier?
Journalists will tell you that where once newsroom incentives rewarded more deeply reported stories, now incentives skew toward work that can be turned around quickly and generate a bump in Web traffic… .“none of this is written down anywhere, but it’s real. The hamster wheel, then, is investigations you will never see, good work left undone, public service not performed.
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 44:
Who suffers from the lack of court coverage? Often, those who most need someone to look out for them. Consider child welfare cases. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Detroit Free Press had a full-time beat reporter, Jack Kresnack, covering family courts. His pieces about the child abuse death of a boy at the hands of his parents led to changes in guardianship laws; his series about the murder of a child by his foster parents led to criminal charges. But Kresnack left in 2007 and has not been replaced.133 In Michigan, coverage of juvenile and family courts has become “smaller and smaller over the years,” according to Vivek Sankaran, director of the new Detroit Center for Family Advocacy.134 Without scrutiny, he says, mistakes are made that have a life-changing impact: “Parents whose rights are terminated who shouldn’t be terminated,” he says. “It’s that type of story. It just takes somebody to go down there to get the story, but nobody is ever down there.”
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 54:
Although there are still dozens of reporters covering the big stories about Congress, there are far fewer covering Congressional delegations—especially their work on local issues. Twenty-seven states have no Washington reporters, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The number of papers with bureaus in the capital has dropped by about half since the mid-1980s; the number of reporters working for regional papers dropped from 200 in the mid-1990s to 73 at the end of 2008. The Down East website in Maine, which has no Washington reporters, described well the implications:
In place of having someone on the scene, Maine news organizations rely on interviews with delegation members to determine what they’re up to. This method has several obvious drawbacks, the most glaring being that our elected officials in the nation’s capital aren’t likely to tell us anything they don’t want us to know. Maine voters are dependent on the delegation’s assessment of itself.
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 44:
State Government: States spent more than $1.2 trillion in fiscal year 2008, compared with $977 billion in 2003—and yet the number of reporters covering statehouses has fallen sharply. A comprehensive survey by the American Journalism Review found that the number of statehouse reporters has dropped by one-third—from 524 in 2003 to 355 in 2009.
The story is the same in state after state.
During a time when New Jersey government has been beset by scandals, the number of journalists covering the capitol has fallen from 39 in 2003 to 15 in 2009.
In California, which is battling one of the nation’s worst budget crises, 29 newspaper reporters covered the statehouse in 2009, down from 40 six years earlier.
Georgia had 14 full-time statehouse newspaper reporters in 2003; in 2009 it had five.
In 1989, 83 people covered the state legislature, governor, or executive agencies in Texas. In 2009, 53 did, according to the Houston Chronicle.
In 2001, Albany, New York had 51 journalists and 29 news organizations covering the statehouse. By 2008, the numbers had fallen to 42 journalists and 27 news organizations. The Staten Island Advance, the Schenectady Daily Gazette, the Troy Record, the Jamestown Post Journal, and the Ottaway News Service are among those that have eliminated their statehouse bureaus entirely.
In Pennsylvania, Jeanette Krebs, editorial page editor for the Harrisburg Patriot News, remembers more than 40 correspondents crowding the Capitol’s pressroom in 1987 when she was an intern. In 1994, when she was president of the Pennsylvania State Legislative Correspondents Association, there were 35. Now, 19 reporters cover the statehouse, including some who come only when the legislature is in session. “Our state Capitol used to be bustling with the media,” said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation. “Now, you can swing a dead cat and not hit anybody in the state Capitol newsroom.”
Nine journalists—print and TV—covered the Nevada legislature in 2010. In better times, according to Ed Vogel of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, more than 20 would have been there. As the coverage has shrunk by half, the state has more than tripled in size.99 “If you’re not there, it changes how legislators look at it,” says Vogel, the lone remaining reporter from his newspaper. “The oversight, the watchdogs won’t be there. It’s a benefit to society that won’t exist anymore.”
In many cases, smaller newspapers have abandoned statehouses altogether. For years, the Champaign (IL) News-Gazette had a reporter in the Capitol, in Springfield, to cover topics of particular importance to Champaign-Urbana—home to the University of Illinois’ largest campus—such as higher education bills and state pension issues. In 2010, legislative coverage was done from the Champaign newsroom. “We miss the in-depth coverage and the perspective and nuance that having a reporter there every day provides,” editor John Beck says. “What we’re missing more is the enterprise coverage…the investigative coverage. As newsrooms have lost staff members, which we have like all other newsrooms, it makes it harder to do these kinds of stories.”
For nearly five years, Aaron Chambers was the statehouse bureau chief for the Rockford (IL) Register Star. At one point, he broke the story that the executive branch was improperly managing government contracts, potentially risking millions of taxpayer dollars. In 2008, his paper eliminated its statehouse bureau; Chambers went into public relations.
In all, a survey by the American Journalism Review published in the spring of 2009 found that more than 50 newspapers and news companies nationwide had at that point stopped covering their statehouses entirely since 2003. They include the Anniston (AL) Star, the East Valley (AZ) Tribune, the Stockton (CA) Record, the Bakersfield Californian, Copley News Service (CA), Lehman Newspapers (CO), the Daily Camera (CO), the New Haven (CT) Register, the Pocatello Idaho State Journal, the Nampa Idaho Press-Tribune, the Rockford (IL) Register, the Bloomington (IL) Pantagraph, the Champaign (IL) News-Gazette, Gannett Company Inc. (IN), the Covington Kentucky Post, Community Newspaper Company (MA), the Lawrence (MA) Eagle Tribune, the Pontiac (MI) Oakland Press, the Duluth (MN) News Tribune, the St. Cloud (MN) Times, the Mankato (MN) Free Press, the Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian, Foster’s Daily Democrat (NH), the Trenton (NJ) Times, the Trentonian (NJ), the Staten Island (NY) Advance, the Schenectady (NY) Daily Gazette, Ottaway News Service (NY), the Troy (NY) Record, the Jamestown (NY) Post Journal, the Durham (NC) Herald-Sun, the Wilmington (NC) Star News, the Grand Forks (ND) Herald, the Minot (ND) Daily News, Gannett Company Inc. (OH), GateHouse Media (OH), Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (OK), the York (PA) Daily Record, Ottaway News Service (PA), Calkins Media (PA), the Wilkes-Barre (PA) Times Leader, the Myrtle Beach (SC) Sun News, McClatchy Newspapers (SC), the Charlotte (NC) Observer, the Argus (SD) Leader, the Rapid City (SD) Journal, Scripps Newspapers (TX), Valley Freedom Newspapers (TX), the Danville (VA) Register Bee, the Morgantown (WV) Dominion Post, and Lee Enterprises Inc. (WI).
Recent efforts to fill these gaps have come largely from the nonprofit sector. For example, the web-based Texas Tribune, California Watch, and NJ Spotlight, which are financed largely by foundations, provide substantial coverage of their respective statehouses. The Associated Press has made a commitment to keep at least one reporter in each statehouse. State government spending has increased. But the number of reporters covering it has plummeted.
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 46:
Perhaps the most infamous and instructive case is in Bell, California. For years, residents of Bell, population 37,000, wondered how their town officials managed to live like the rich and famous. Bell is a working-class, largely immigrant suburb of Los Angeles with a median household income of around $30,000. But the town manager, Robert Rizzo, owned a mansion by the beach and a 10-acre horse ranch outside Seattle.
“For a long time there’s been evidence that they were paying themselves big salaries,” says Christina Garcia, a community activist and teacher, “but no one knew how much.” In July 2010, Los Angeles Times reporters gave Garcia and the rest of the country a shocking answer: Rizzo was earning $787,637 a year. The police chief, Randy Adams, was earning $457,000—about 50 percent more than the Los Angeles police chief or county sheriff, and more than the president of the United States.
In 1993, when council members hired Rizzo to be interim chief administrative officer, his starting salary was $72,000.110 By September 2004, he was drawing down $300,000 annually. Ten months later, his salary jumped an additional 47 percent to $442,000.112 Rizzo’s large and regular raises continued until the L.A. Times wrote about Bell, at which point the city council ordered a staff report on city salaries. In September 2010, the Los Angeles County district attorney filed charges against eight Bell officials, alleging that they stole $5.5 million in public funds. Rizzo was charged with 53 felony counts, 44 of which pertain to misappropriation of Bell’s municipal coffers.
Why did it take so long for the financial scandal to be exposed? “A lot of residents tried to get the media’s attention, but it was impossible,” Garcia says. “The city of Bell doesn’t even have a local paper; no local media of any sort.”
The closest television stations are in L.A., but they rarely cover Bell. There are six newspapers operating within a 10-mile radius of Bell (the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Downtown News, the Torrance Breeze, the Whittier Daily News, and the South Pasadena News); and 19 within 20 miles (including the Long Beach Press Telegram, the Orange County Register, and papers in Burbank and Pasadena). But the Bell, Maywood, Cudahy Community News, which used to be the local watchdog, was sold in 1998, just five years after Rizzo was hired, and it eventually went out of business.
The demise of smaller papers in the region has left the Los Angeles Times pretty much on its own to cover 88 municipalities and 10 million citizens. Metro editor David Lauter laments that his staff is “spread thinner and there are fewer people on any given area…. We’re not there every day, or even every week or every month. Unfortunately, nobody else is either.”
While the Times has a policy against disclosing specifics, Lauter wrote in an email that “the metro staff is just slightly less than half the size it was in September 2000 and about 30 percent smaller than in January 2008…. largely as a result of eliminating separate staffs in our far-flung suburban regions.” Times reporters Jeff Gottlieb, Ruben Vives, and Catherine Salliant learned about the unusually high salaries of Bell officials while investigating possible wrongdoing in the nearby community of Maywood. Gottlieb says Bell residents have been effusive in their thanks.
“They come to newspapers to have their wrongs overturned.”
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 13:
Topics like local education, health care, and government get minimal coverage. In a 2010 study of Los Angeles TV news by the Annenberg School of Communications, such topics took up just a little over one minute of the 30 minute broadcast. Only one out of 100 lead stories was about the ongoing budget crisis. In another study—of local broadcasters in 175 cities—coverage of city government was found to be about one-third as common as crime stories. Other studies have discovered the same pattern.
More stations are increasingly relying on “one-man bands”—reporters who interview, shoot, and edit. In some cases, this is a powerful and sensible efficiency that stations could use to increase the number of reporters in the field. But in many communities, that is not what has happened. “Let’s face it—it is what it is, and it is economic,” says Con Psarras, former news director at KSL in Salt Lake City. “It is an ability to cut heads and it is a full-time equivalent- reduction campaign. It does not make the pictures better, it does not make the stories better—it does not make the coverage on the web better. That’s a mythology—it just saves money.”48 One typical TV reporter said that while he was one-man banding, he was so busy tweeting, shooting, and editing, he had less time for interviews. “It’s the research. When I was one-man-banding, if I had interviewed one or two people, I’d say, hey, that’s enough to get on the air.”
Perhaps most disturbing is the persistence of cases in which local TV news programs have allowed advertisers to determine on-air content. In Wisconsin, a news director resigned over the station’s “pay-for-play” arrangement with a local hospital that had agreed to advertise in exchange for a commitment from the station to air health stories twice a week—from a list of ideas provided by the hospital. A hospital in Ohio paid local TV stations $100,000 or more to air “medical breakthrough” segments that benefited the hospital. A Florida morning show was soliciting $2,500 fees in exchange for guest slots. In other cases, stations are airing video press releases as if they were news stories created by news staff. Though we have no way of knowing how many stations have adopted these egregious practices, the trend-line is worrisome: “The evidence we’ve seen suggests that this is much more widespread than a few years ago,” says Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism.
This is not meant to be a blanket indictment of local TV news. Some stations have done more than maintain their reporting capacity; they have improved it. But the evidence indicates that in many communities if local TV news continues on its current path, it will not fill the gaps in accountability reporting left by newspapers. In fact, 64 percent of broadcast news executives believe that their profession is headed in the wrong direction; they are even more pessimistic than newspaper editors. We emphasize the word “current” because local TV news has the capacity to play a different—more journalistically significant—role in the new ecosystem. The question is whether the industry will seize that opportunity.” (Also, see the Pew report’s chapter on TV news, starting on page 72.)
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 52:
Health: A March 2009 report, titled “The State of Health Journalism in the U.S.,” produced for the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that the number of health reporters has declined even though reader interest in the topic remains strong. Fewer reporters are doing more work, resulting in “a loss of in-depth, enterprise and policy-related stories.”139 The report, by Gary Schwitzer, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, concluded:
interest in health news is as high as it’s ever been, but because the staff and resources available to cover this news have been slashed, the workload on remaining reporters has gone up. many journalists are writing for multiple platforms, adding multimedia tasks to their workload, having to cover more beats, file more stories, and do it all quicker, in less space, and with fewer resources for training or travel. demand for ‘quick hit’ stories has gone up, along with ‘news you can use’ and ‘hyper-local’ stories.
As a result, many in the industry are worried about a loss of in-depth, enterprise and policy-related stories. And newsrooms with reduced staff who are facing pressure to produce are more vulnerable to public relations and advertising pressures. Health news may be particularly challenged by the issues of sponsored segments, purchased stories, and [video news releases] Vnrs.
While specific figures are not available to track newspapers’ reduction in health reporters, the Kaiser report said that, in a survey of members of the Association of Health Care Journalists, 94 percent of respondents said that “bottom-line pressure in news organizations is seriously hurting the quality of health news.” Further, 40 percent ofjournalists surveyed said that the number of health reporters at their outlets had gone down during their tenure there, and only 16 percent said the number had increased.142 In addition, “39 percent said it was at least somewhat likely that their own position would be eliminated in the next few years.”
Losing journalists who cover such a specialized beat as health is significant. Reporters often spend years building up an expertise in the intricacies of medicine. They must learn how to decipher, explain, and put in context complex, confusing, and often controversial developments in treatment and cures, breakthroughs and disappointments. They need to translate medical speak into plain English. They need to be on top of developments in such areas as pharmaceuticals, clinical testing, hospital care, infectious diseases, and genetics. Theirs are not the kinds of stories that other reporters can easily produce.
In 2009, Ferrel Guillory, director of the University of North Carolina’s Program on Public Life, explained in a North Carolina Medical Journal article how the latest staff reductions had impacted health reporting at one paper. “Only a few years ago,” he wrote, “the News & Observer in Raleigh had as many as four reporters assigned to various health- related beats. They covered the big pharmaceutical industry in Research Triangle Park, Chapel Hill-based Blue Cross Blue Shield, the medical schools of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, and local hospitals. As of August 2009, the N&O has only one reporter with a primary focus on health.” Guillory concluded that, although the appetite among the public for health stories remained high, “dependable, continuous” health cov- erage had diminished. Further, he wrote, journalists (in particular, those on television), focus more on emergencies, public health “scares,” and the announcements of new “cures” and technologies than on important policy matters and major trends in health and health care.
Mark Silverman, editor of the (Nashville) Tennessean, recalls the day he stood with a staff researcher in front of a blackboard listing major stories he had hoped the paper would produce in the coming months. One line listed a story about how the state medical board was allowing incompetent doctors to mistreat patients, be disciplined by local hospitals, and then continue practicing medicine at other locations. But that story idea had an “X” next to it, meaning it would not get done, because the paper now had one health reporter instead of two.
While doing research for a book, Maryn McKenna, a former health writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, made an astonishing discovery: The “flesh-eating disease”—MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—
was rampant at Folsom Prison in California. In an average year, the highly contagious skin infection kills 19,000 Americans, puts 370,000 in hospitals, and sends an estimated seven million to doctors or emergency rooms. “Some guards are getting infected, seriously infected,” McKenna says. “When prison guards go home, they take MRSA with them.” Now, families and friends, wives and children, the convenience- store clerk who hands over change or a lottery ticket are susceptible to the infection, which easily spreads outside the prison into the general and unwitting population. At the time, MRSA had been described in the national and specialty press, but no one had written about the situation at Folsom. “I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe nobody’s written about this,’ ” McKenna says. “Why hasn’t it been in the L.A. papers, in the San Francisco papers? It’s not like those are lazy institutions.” She then realized that, as at many newspapers large and small, deep staff cuts had left them unable to cover the story. The crisis went unnoticed until McKenna wrote about it.
Even when they are able to cover a medical story, time-strapped reporters often miss significant pieces of information. In the Kaiser study, more than 75 percent of the 500 stories reviewed concerning treatments, tests, products, or procedures failed to adequately discuss cost. And more than 65 percent failed to quantify the potential benefits and dangers, according to HealthNewsReview.org, a website created by Schwitzer, the author of the Kaiser study.
In the report and on HealthNewsReview.org, complaints abound from seasoned reporters who lament the growth of “press release reporting” and the lack of time they have to check out the veracity of information contained in a press release. Twenty eight percent of health reporters said that they personally get story ideas from public relations firms or marketing outreach somewhat or very often. Among those who work on at least some web content, half said that having to work across different media has resulted in less time and attention for each story, and 59 percent said it meant that they work longer hours.LifePosts.com, co-founder of Beliefnet, and a former newsmagazine journalist.