Feet to the Fire

Does journalism keep government honest?

For a profession that lives by the cynical adage, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” journalism has been surprisingly lax in verifying one of its central claims—that it keeps government honest. But is it true?

Two economists, who went looking for proof, found little hard evidence—good or bad—of the effects of the press on democracy. So they set about establishing the truth of the claim themselves, in a new study that nails down the relationship between newspaper coverage and political accountability.

While previous studies have argued that the recipe for good governance includes knowledgeable voters and an active press, none have identified which comes first. In a working paper featured on the Web site of the National Bureau of Economic Research, MIT’s James Snyder Jr. and Stockholm University’s David Strömberg produce the most convincing evidence yet by identifying a chain of impact that starts with the press. Journalists, they say, kick-start a virtuous cycle by covering politics, which educates voters, who in turn put pressure on politicians, who then work harder and produce more constituent-friendly policies. House of Representatives members who aren’t scrutinized by hometown reporters, Snyder and Strömberg find, work less for their constituencies—they testify at fewer hearings, serve on fewer committees, and vote more often along party lines. As a result, federal policy tends to break unfavorably for their constituents, and federal spending is lower in their districts. When politicians do receive coverage, they offer testimony at almost 50 percent more congressional hearings and slice off 10 percent more pork for their districts—roughly $2,700 a person—than colleagues the press ignores.

“Voters need information to keep politicians accountable and the press delivers this information,” write Snyder and Strömberg, who based their findings on a study of online editions of 161 newspapers, covering an average of 385 congressional districts between 1991 and 2002. The typical newspaper wrote about a hundred stories a year featuring their local congressmen; but those papers covering just one congressional district, as opposed to two or more, published up to 50 percent more. As a result, readers of single-congressman newspapers were up to 20 percent more able to name their member of the House and to cite qualities of that person they like and dislike.

That’s a gold star for journalists. But it would be greater cause for celebration if the picture weren’t so gloomy for the newspapers they work for. There are around 350 fewer daily newspapers today than there were fifty years ago, and roughly 10 percent fewer newspaper journalists than in 2000. Some newspapers—their staffs and budgets cut to the bone—are starting to share copy and manpower. In the last year, Ohio’s eight largest papers formed ohno, the Ohio News Organization, to pool in-state reporting, while the St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald merged their Tallahassee-based staffs into a single bureau. A “Northeast Consortium” of newspapers—including New York’s Daily News and Newsday, and New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger—is also reportedly close to a deal to share some stories and photos.

Snyder and Strömberg’s study suggests some danger in these developments. Newspapers will report less about district representatives who, in turn, will be less accountable to their constituents. And there’s little hope that “Live at Five” television news programs will pick up the slack. Snyder and Strömberg, corroborating past studies, find that television has “no effect” on voter knowledge about their congressmen.

That congressmen work harder when covered by newspapers might be good for locals, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into benefits for the country at large. After all, eager politicians don’t necessarily come from the neediest districts, and those districts that do get federal dollars may not use them wisely—think Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” Snyder and Strömberg, sensitive to this distinction, do not claim that newspaper coverage focused on Congress makes the country better, only that it increases the chances that representatives will help constituents back home. At least it used to, when there were enough newspapers, with enough resources, to keep watch. 

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Michael Schudson & Danielle Haas write The Research Report for CJR. Schudson teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and in the Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego. Haas is a Ph.D. candidate in Communications at Columbia.