Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Media Coverage Decisions Based on Access and Judgement Calls

theatlantic |  Roughly two weeks ago, a Twitter user with fewer than 1,700 followers began publishing screen grabs of anti-gay posts from a defunct blog once written by Joy Reid, who hosts a weekend morning show on a cable-news network. Like the vast majority of Americans, I’d never watched the show AM Joy on MSNBC—I do not typically enjoy cable-news channels, or for that matter, the morning.

But despite having zero interest in what the host wrote years ago; or whether she was hacked, as she claimed, or lying, or deluding herself; or whether her show would stay on or be suspended or get canceled, I couldn’t escape the story.

I tried, reader.

No matter how it turned out, I could see no greater purpose that it would serve, no insight it would clarify, no ill it would vanquish, no good it would advance. So I ignored two articles and two stories in New York Times, least items in. Then, 12 days in, national news stories were still being published! Defeated, I decided to probe the why of it all. Was any larger purpose served by all the coverage? If not, is there an identifiable way in which the press should change its approach?

On reading the coverage, I gleaned insights from a few stories. I grant that few were indefensible. And I understand how structural features of the news ecosystem fueled the story. For example, coverage by one news outlet spawns coverage by others that don’t want to get beat; once any outlet covers a story, it is more likely to publish more stories, in part to update its audience on new information; and while commentators have a responsibility to direct people to what is important, part of the job is also conceding that one often cannot control what’s in the news, or what folks seize upon and cause to trend on social-media sites—but that even too-popular stories can offer opportunities to make tangential points of importance that readers will be unusually primed to ponder.

So it isn’t that I find fault with all the journalists who published on Joy Reid.

What’s more, I share many of the underlying concerns that sparked some of the coverage. I oppose homophobic stereotypes. I agree people should not claim hackers are responsible for their words and that public dishonesty is a transgression in journalism. I think there is a role for journalists to hold members of their own profession accountable. And I agree with those who insist that if a conservative were in Reid’s place, there would be furious calls on the left for her termination. (I am a consistent critic of such calls regardless of is involved.)

But even grasping many of the factors that fueled coverage and sympathizing with folks who reacted to some of them does not change my overall assessment.

Coverage decisions are judgment calls.