‘It’s scary out there in reporting land’

David Cay Johnston is one of the best reporters around, and he’s right. The lack of government reporting (and the poor quality of what little we have) has eroded our ability to evaluate what they’re up to. And the products of our journalism schools don’t even have common sense, which is how officials get away with so much:

Beats are fundamental to journalism, but our foundation is crumbling. Whole huge agencies of the federal government and, for many news organizations, the entirety of state government go uncovered. There are school boards and city councils and planning commissions that have not seen a reporter in years. The outrageous salaries that were paid to Bell, California city officials—close to $800,000 to the city manager, for example—would not have happened if just one competent reporter had been covering that city hall in Southern California. But no one was, and it took an accidental set of circumstances for two reporters from the Los Angeles Times to reveal this scandal.

Four decades ago when I covered local government meetings in Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury, I always asked for copies of the agency budget. In those days, before spreadsheets or the first pocket calculator had been invented, I did long division in the margins to figure out trends and how the taxpayers’ money was being spent. It not only relieved the tedium of the meetings I sat through, but it produced story after story after story that engaged readers and at times infuriated officials while protecting the public purse.

Increasingly what I see are news reports evidencing a basic lack of knowledge about government. And this isn’t happening just with beat reporters but with the assignment and copy editors who are supposed to review stories before they get into print or on the air.

[…] During the past 15 years as I focused my reporting on how the American economy works and the role of government in shaping how the benefits and burdens of the economy are distributed, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed at the superficial and often dead wrong assumptions permeating the news. Every day in highly respected newspapers I read well-crafted stories with information that in years past I would have embraced but now know is nonsense, displaying a lack of understanding of economic theory and the regulation of business. The stories even lack readily available official data on the economy and knowledge of the language and principles in the law, including the Constitution.

What these stories have in common is a reliance on what sources say rather than what the official record shows. If covering a beat means finding sources and sniffing out news, then a firm foundation of knowledge about the topic is essential, though not sufficient. Combine this with a curiosity to dig deeply into the myriad of documents that are in the public record—and then ask sources about what the documents show.

5 thoughts on “‘It’s scary out there in reporting land’

  1. As a product of one of the country’s best journalism schools, I think you’re being a bit too harsh. There are a lot of really good journalists out there. Getting them employed and getting them the time/resources needed to do their jobs correctly, unfortunately, aren’t as easy. I can’t tell you how many newsroom horror stories I’ve read about reporters being frozen out, reassigned, fired, etc. for being right in the face of the “conventional wisdom.” As cliche as it sounds, I wish I had a nickel for every time it’s happened to me. The corporitization of American media with all the downsizing, ratings-chasing, conformity-enforcing, influence-peddling nonsense that comes with it is a far bigger problem than the abilities of the available talent pool.

    Btw, I left journalism and now work in government where I get to use all the skills and knowledge about government that I picked up as a journalist but was rarely allowed to use.

  2. That’s also true. The few good reporters are quickly put in their places. They either learn to shut up, or they keep moving until they find a real paper. Or they leave, more’s the pity.

  3. Just for you, I’m covering the student government meetings. And have walked into a big budget “thing.” And am boring my editors with it. Just for you.

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