Obama is wrong. Traditional journalism isn’t dead.

August 4, 2013

Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University's Dan Hopkins and George Washington University's Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Hayes looks at President Obama's assertion that traditional journalism is dead, and finds it wanting. For past posts in the series, head here.

In an Amazon Kindle interview released Wednesday, the president noted that upheaval in the media landscape has restructured the news industry and made it increasingly difficult for journalists to make a living. Just as in manufacturing and retail, he said, “those old times aren’t coming back.”

President Obama is waving goodbye to traditional journalism too quickly. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)
President Obama is waving goodbye to traditional journalism too quickly. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Obama is correct that the economics of news has irrevocably changed. Moreover, the same technological developments roiling the industry have also altered the way Americans consume the news, the way reporters interact with sources and gather information, and the Katie Ledecky-like speed with which all this happens.

But I want to highlight what the “death” of traditional journalism does not mean. It does not mean that the content of political news is fundamentally different than what Americans were getting 10, 20, even 30 years ago.

That’s because many of the basic norms, habits, routines, and news judgments that guided the practice of “traditional journalism” for most of the 20th century still hold sway today — even in some of the very media outlets that have revolutionized the business of the news. As a result, political news in many ways remains very much the same as it was when Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather were on the air.

We saw one example this week. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, political scientist Brendan Nyhan highlighted how media coverage of the Internal Revenue Service scandal peaked immediately after news broke that the agency had targeted the tax-exempt applications of tea party and conservative groups. But coverage quickly fell off and has remained low, even as new reporting revealed that the agency had also flagged “progressive” and pro-Palestinian organizations.

Some of Nyhan’s evidence comes from an analysis of The Washington Post and The New York Times. But he also found the exact same pattern in Politico.

Politico certainly shares DNA with its traditional media brethren, having been built by management and with an editorial staff with strong ties to the Washington media corps. But it is also representative of a new type of player, a principally online news organization whose niche focus — Washington politics — allows it to appeal to a small universe of political uber-junkies.

Yet Politico covered the IRS scandal in virtually an identical fashion as did the old media dinosaurs. (On Thursday, Ezra suggested that Wonkblog’s own reporting basically followed the same problematic pattern.) Just as reporters in traditional newsrooms often engage in an “issue attention cycle,” leading them to quickly lose interest in stories, so do journalists in the newer venues.

Of course, Politico may be one thing. But what about the really non-traditional outlets, like cable news shows and blogs? With some important caveats, coverage in these outlets often follows the same patterns as their mainstream media counterparts.

Take the 2011 debate over whether the United States should intervene in Libya’s civil war. In a chapter in the book "New Directions in Media and Politics," I found that news coverage was very similar in two ideological blogs (Daily Kos and Hot Air), two cable outlets (Fox and MSNBC), and two mainstream news organizations (CBS News and The Washington Post).

For example, there were few systematic differences across outlets in the amount of coverage focused on the substance of U.S. policy toward Libya, rather than political strategy and gamesmanship of the White House and congressional Republicans.

And although coverage on the blogs and cable channels was less likely than on CBS and in the Post to include government officials as sources, that had no effect on the amount of pro- vs. anti-intervention rhetoric in the news. In every outlet — from Daily Kos to Fox — a majority of the statements supported intervention in Libya.

A large body of research has shown that mainstream media tends to “index” its coverage to the range of discourse taking place in Washington. During the Libya debate, blogs and cable channels did the same thing.

Something similar happened during the 2012 presidential election. As part of a study for "Campaigns and Elections American Style," I compared the amount of attention devoted to different campaign issues in four popular blogs (Daily Kos, Crooks and Liars, Hot Air, and Red State) to coverage on ABC News and the Times. I examined the period from May 1 through election day.

The amount of coverage of the economy, budget deficit, Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, and Medicare was similar in every outlet. The chart below shows the percentage of stories in each media source focused on each issue, as a percentage of all campaign coverage. While there is some variation, the general pattern is the same: the economy dominated, with relatively little attention devoted to the other issues.

And it wasn’t just the overall distribution of issue attention. The rise and fall of issues during the course of the campaign was also very similar. Following the Obama campaign’s July attacks on Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, Bain stories peaked that month in every outlet. Medicare surged into the news in August after Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the architect of a plan to overhaul the entitlement program, was announced as Romney’s running mate.

For all their ideological and technological differences, every news outlet was similarly responsive to campaign-trail developments. Obama and Romney’s communication strategies produced a kind of centripetal force that led both the traditional and new media to converge on the same agenda. For a “fragmented” news environment, the homogeneity in the media’s responsiveness to the flow of the campaign is telling.

At the same time, it would be naïve to trivialize the differences between the old and new media environment. The level of partisan and ideologically motivated coverage, for one, is much higher today than it was even a decade ago.

For instance, when an October report showed an increase in 171,000 new jobs, the liberal blog Crooks and Liars described it as “more good news.” Hot Air, on the other hand, channeled a tweet from conservative commentator James Pethokoukis: “Obama WH predicted unemployment rate would be 5.2 percent in October 2012, not 7.9 percent. Missed it by thismuch [sic].” That kind of slanted coverage can have consequences.

But it’s important to keep in mind that the audiences for ideological media remain small. Most Americans still get their news from traditional outlets. Political scientist Markus Prior has shown that just a tiny fraction of people regularly watches Fox or MSNBC. Even most Republicans and Democrats have similar, ideologically balanced news diets, according to data from political scientist Michael LaCour. (See also here.) Facebook is mostly used for socializing and entertainment, not politics. Almost no one is on Twitter.

As a result, most Americans still get news that is largely filtered through the debates happening among political elites in Washington. To be sure, this process is more complicated today. But the content of political news has not been revolutionized. Journalists, whether in the new media or old, still play a game according to very similar rules as did their 20th-century predecessors. In some ways, those “old times” the president referred to are right now.

Correction: This post originally stated that Obama said "traditional journalism is dead" in his interview with Amazon. That was incorrect.

Danny Hayes is associate professor of political science at George Washington University. His research focuses on political communication and political behavior. He is the co-author of Influence from Abroad, a book about Americans' views toward U.S. foreign policy.
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Washington Post · August 4, 2013