The News and Us

Paul Krugman muses about why news outlets tend to cover the politics and horserace aspects of things like healthcare far more than they cover the policy substance:

The WaPo ombudsman hits on a pet peeve of mine from way back: reporting that focuses on how policy proposals are supposedly playing, rather than what’s actually in them. Back in 2004 I looked at TV reports on health care plans, and found not a single segment actually explaining the candidates’ plans. This time the WaPo ombud looks at his own paper’s reporting, and it’s not much better.

Why does this happen? I suspect several reasons.

1. It’s easier to research horse-race stuff….2. It’s easier to write horse-race stuff….3. It’s safer to cover the race.

I suspect there at least two other reasons as well.  First, news operations, by definition, report news.  And horserace stuff changes all the time.  There’s always something new to report.

But that’s not so for the policy stuff.  You can write a big piece comparing the various healthcare proposals out there, and once you’ve done it, you’re done.  You’re not going to run another piece a week later covering the exact same ground.  You need to find a new angle.  But policy doesn’t change all that much, and there are only just so many fresh angles on this stuff.  So if you’re dedicated to reporting on new stuff, you’re going to have a tough time writing lots of policy primers.

Second, let’s face it: most people fall asleep when they come across stuff like this.  Even here in the blogosphere most readers have only a limited appetite for wonkery, and as Krugman mentions, trying to make this stuff interesting is next to impossible.  “I’ve spent years trying to learn the craft,” he says, “and it still often comes out way too dry.”  And that’s despite the fact that he has the advantage of writing for the most educated, politically engaged audience you can imagine.

This is only going to get worse.  I don’t think mainstream news outlets have ever been all that good at explaining policy, but they’ve probably gotten worse over the years as attention spans have shortened and the media environment has gotten ever louder and more ubiquitous.  You really can’t explain healthcare reform in two minutes, but fewer and fewer people are willing to sit around for much longer than that.

The fault, in other words, lies not in the media, but in ourselves.  The mainstream media may have written ten times as much about the townhalls as they did about the actual substance of the healthcare proposals on the table, but the blogosphere only did a little better.  Even here in wonkland, the outrage of the day is a much more tempting blog topic than reimbursement rates for Medicare.

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