how the new media landscape actually shifts power to government

In an interesting talk yesterday, Steven Waldman drew attention to a study of the changing news environment in Baltimore, MD conducted by The Pew Research Center. In that city, the number of news outlets has proliferated to 53 “radio talk shows, … blogs, specialized new outlets, new media sites, TV stations, radio news programs, newspapers and their various legacy media websites.”  But the number of reporters has fallen–fast. That means that there is more written and spoken text about the news, but it is highly repetitive. A search of six major news topics found that 83% of the articles and blog posts repeated the same material–perhaps sometimes with commentary–and more than half of the original text came from paid print media such as the Baltimore Sun.

Because the Sun and the local TV stations have cut reporters, they produce many fewer articles than they did ten years ago. They also have smaller budgets for what is called “enterprise reporting” (digging to find new information not already in the public domain). This trend has the somewhat surprising result that city governments and other official institutions now have more, rather than less, control over the news.

As news is posted faster, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important. We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such.

You might think that with 53 news outlets in a city like Baltimore, the news environment would have become more diverse and free. But if most of the text in these news outlets comes verbatim from government press releases, the public sphere is actually weaker. It’s not much help if many of the 53 outlets adopt critical, skeptical, or even hostile editorial stances. They are still allowing the government to set the agenda and define the facts. They are just adding some commentary.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.