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October 10, 2008

Filed under: journalism»industry

The Dichotomy

I'm still obsessed with This American Life's Giant Pool of Money show. The reason for my obsession is that it won't go away: I see this thing getting press from all kinds of people. Music blogs post it. Game blogs link to it. Of course, every political blog on Earth has mentioned it.

If you're trying to get people to read/view your news site online, which has been on my mind for obvious reasons, you have to look at that and ask: What did they do right? What makes that different? How do we get that kind of traffic and acclaim? Especially if you're a business reporter or editor--when Ira Frakkin' Glass is producing the best financial coverage of the year, you really need to re-evaluate your product.

The obvious tactic is "do good journalism," but there's more to it than that. TGPoM is good journalism, but there's lots of good journalism out there. The mechanics of the piece are not what makes it special. It wasn't researched more thoroughly than the average NPR report, or edited differently from many TAL shows. I believe that the difference between TGPoM and the financial coverage elsewhere is a simple one, but one that illustrates a wider, more fundamental problem with the American press: it was about policy instead of politics.

What I mean by that is that the reporters for the Pool of Money piece worked hard to make the mortgage crisis relatable to listeners. They didn't approach it as bickering between Wall Street and Main Street, and they didn't go for quick partisan soundbites, then call it a day. They answered simple questions: what is this thing? How did it happen? Could it happen to me? What are the real stakes? This sounds like it should be easy to do, but a vast amount of reporting--particularly business and political reporting--doesn't bother to do it. Business coverage is often wonky, detailed stuff aimed at elites. Political journalism has devolved into either he-said-she-said parroting of campaign lines or grossly-inflated trivialities. When the two meet, as they did recently, the results are typically disastrous.

Covering policy is hard. It requires expertise, or talking to experts. It requires a journalist to sometimes make a call as to whether one side of an issue is more accurate, likely, or truthful than the other. And more importantly, to do it right, you have to be able to look at an issue and make connections, putting the news into context.

By contrast, covering "politics" is easy. You still have to talk to people, but you don't have to work nearly as hard to understand it, or double-check it, or figure out what it means for the average reader. There's no "translation effort." If you're covering campaigns by politics instead of policy, you don't check whether a given candidate's plan actually does what they say it would. When you fact-check, you only check whether their statements are superficially true or false, not (for example) whether their plans would actually be effective when applied to national policy.

But clearly, the rewards for doing accessible explainer pieces are great. Which is why it amazes me that no-one else seems to have done it for the bailout. The New York Times does not have something along these lines. The Washington Post doesn't. CQ, much to my chagrin and shame, certainly didn't, although our in-depth coverage of the bailout bill was phenomenal. (Actually, someone may have done an explainer. But since there's not a single newspaper in the country with a decent search function, I can't find it if they have, so it might as well not exist.)

Until this weekend, that is. Because then This American Life did it again. They put together Another Frightening Show about the Economy, and it is just as good as the first program. It can stand alone, or it can fill in the gaps. As with the previous version, after listening, I can not only read other coverage and understand it (not, I might add, a minor point), I can also teach it to other people. It really is an extraordinary piece of explainer journalism.

There's nothing wrong with reporting the details, or providing journalism for topic experts. I suspect that many business reporters have trouble making a transition to a general audience, exactly because most of the time their audience is not general, but an elite. They're reporting for business junkies. Political reporting, similarly, is written both by and for people who thrive on little nasty details of the process, instead of people who will actually be affected by its implementation.

And while the business press can possibly be excused (no-one was exactly clamoring for a detailed look at the commercial paper market before it clammed up), there's no excuse for journalists who choose to cover politics instead of policy. The latter--the outcomes that affect all of us in much more direct ways--is vastly important for a functional democracy. Deficiencies there don't just help to explain why the media is considered untrustworthy, and why the industry's revenues are falling. They point to a wider fracture in our civic life. When journalism obsesses over nitpicks in a speech or comment, rather than the details of applying governmental power, everyone loses.

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