Journalistic Regulatory Capture

from the a-part-of-the-machine dept

Tim Lee recently highlighted an interesting, but worth exploring, aside made by Will Wilkinson, talking about the concept of "journalistic capture." You are (hopefully) aware of the concept of regulatory capture -- whereby regulators effectively become tools of the industries they regulate. There are a variety of reasons behind this, in part due to the fact that industries will always have more advanced lobbying activities rather than consumers or other parties, but also due to the fact that there's often a revolving door between regulators and the industries they regulate. That's why industry lobbyists all too often write the bills that regulators introduce and pass. Regulators are all too happy to allow this to happen -- as their main source of information about those industries comes straight from the industry reps themselves. Thus, the "need" for any particular piece of legislation is quite often presented from the industry's viewpoint directly. Basically, since the industry controls the flow of information, the laws come out in their favor. Regulatory capture at work.

Wilkinson's point is that something quite similar often happens with journalists and the industries or individuals they cover. Basically, the journalists are almost entirely reliant on their sources within the industry to provide the information necessary for reporting on that industry. Thus, the insiders are able to shape the story and often have it come out to their advantage -- just like laws and regulatory capture. It's certainly not a new concept to think that journalists often become too chummy with the industry insiders they cover -- but thinking of it in terms of "journalistic capture" is quite an intriguing concept which deserves more widespread recognition and discussion -- especially in an era where so many people distrust journalists and are looking for sources they feel aren't as biased.


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  1.  
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    Analyst (profile), Apr 2nd, 2009 @ 7:17pm

    Astute Observations

    One more reason online journalism is destroying print media...

     

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  2.  
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    Weird Harold, Apr 2nd, 2009 @ 7:24pm

    Online journalism will suffer even worse in the end, I suspect. Shortening the distance from advertisers to reporters is a real issue, something that has more often been seen in print with small town newspapers (where everyone knows everyone). Stories that might impact a major sponsor are deep sixed or re-written slant to not seem so bad.

    When a reporter for an online paper knows that their paycheck is entirely dependant on the sponsor they are currently investigating, at what point do they back off to avoid shooting themselves in the wallet?

     

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  3.  
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    Ben S, Apr 2nd, 2009 @ 7:39pm

    John Stewart knows this

    John Stewart infamously went after CNBC for this very practice. I'm sure most Techdirt readers saw the news stories about "Stewart vs. Cramer." Stewart wasn't (at first) specifically targeting Cramer when he began his assault - he went after the entire network for sucking up to bank and financial institution executives in order to ensure repeated TV appearances and interviews. CNBC's reporters feared getting cut off by the industry insiders so rather than ask the tough questions, which they are bound to do by their own ethical code, they repeated the lies and spin the execs served up without a second thought.

    Media consolidation and sensationalism have significantly changed the role of news media in our society. Corporate cronyism and the race for ratings in the 24x7 cable news channel world have made journalists into entertainers when their role *should* be that of watchdog. Unfortunately companies like Disney and GE don't care for watchdogs so they instead distract us with stories about Britney and Michelle Obama's wardrobe.

     

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  4.  
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    Weird Harold, Apr 2nd, 2009 @ 7:49pm

    Re:

    I peed my pants again, damn it!

     

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  5.  
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    KGWagner (profile), Apr 2nd, 2009 @ 8:30pm

    Journalistic Capture?

    Did anyone see the last presidential election? If that wasn't a glaring example of journalistic capture, then one doesn't exist. By embracing the internet and allowing a certain amount of access and participation in the whole charade, Obama's campaign effectively cast a drift net the size of the eastern seaboard and snagged just about every journalist extant. To this day, the love fest is almost embarrassing to watch.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 3rd, 2009 @ 12:22am

    Re: Journalistic Capture?

    Blah blah blah. Bush's puppet lost. Live with it.

     

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  7.  
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    One Disciple, Apr 3rd, 2009 @ 4:13am

    Re: Re: Journalistic Capture?

    From what I have seen out of Washington these days I would say Bush was the "puppet" and Obama is the new "puppet".

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 3rd, 2009 @ 5:47am

    This is surprising? The media ignores stories that don't support their agenda. This is nothing new. The PLO recruits and uses 10 year old kinds in their army, ignored. Sharia law is allowed in Pakistan, ignored. Women's right in the middle east, ignored. Greenhouse gas in India and China exploding, making any cuts the US makes useless, ignored.

    Why should business be any different.

    On Jon Stewart, yeah, he went after Cramer, but if you remember, Cramer was interviewed concerning the hedge funds. Cramer laid out exactly how hedge funds manipulate the market. It was out there, but was ignored by everyone. Where was Jon back then?

     

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    Phil, Apr 3rd, 2009 @ 9:59am

    Journalistic Capture

    As a physician, I have been aware of this phenomenon of 'advertising articles' for a long time.
    I am generally a believer in the potential for technology to improve medical care, but it is certainly true that companies and organizations involved in healthcare regularly use their contacts with the news media to influence public opinion in an attempt to improve their bottom line. I guess my attitude when hearing about some new treatment might be called optimistic skepticism. I'll wait till I can read the medical literature itself, (although there are 'advertising articles' even in peer reviewed journals).
    Note that the desire to influence the media isn't just limited to those who provide medical care or treatment, but also includes those who want to limit money spent on care. Thus it is not unusual to see articles appearing at the behest of the health insurance industry also. This latter observation seems particularly true of the NY Times.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 3rd, 2009 @ 11:45am

    How often does Techdirt say that politicians don't understand technology and shouldn't write laws that screw things up? If you don't understand the industry, how can you regulate it?

    A bigger concern for me is guys who are industry insiders and are then appointed as regulators or cabinet heads. See any guys under Obama that were not in the industry? Did GWB have any that were not?

    These jerk offs go back and forth between industry and government. Think that is by accident?

     

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    mkvf, Apr 3rd, 2009 @ 9:11pm

    There's a big risk of something akin to "stockholm syndrome" in trade journalism: when a company's taken you somewhere nice, fed and watered you, and you've had a nice time with their employees, it's hard not to think of them as friends, and to want to be nice to them in return.

    There are other pressures that stop you from succumbing to that temptation though. For one thing, you need to get readers. If all you ever write is flattery, people won't be interested in reading your articles, and in the end your publication will make less money.

    Even the contacts that you criticise will often respect you more if you try to be balanced, than if you just rewrite their press releases or marketing claims all the time. That will mean that you actually get less access if you are seen as a shill than if you are seen as (relatively) independent.

    Publishers will generally erect walls between advertising sales and editorial, in order to ensure that their content is interesting to readers. The publishers that do that best tend to be the ones that have magazines that last and make money.

    As an individual, you'll eventually want to move to another job. Few editors will be impressed by a portfolio stuffed with puff pieces, so you'll find it harder to get a better job, and you'll make less money.

    There's also the issue of job satisfaction. There are many reasons why people choose to become journalists. Purely financial considerations won't be high on the list though (or, at least, you'll soon realise you've made a mistake if you think journalism is a route to riches; that's the point at which many people decide to work in PR instead). For many journalists, the sense that you are in some way performing a socially important task, by exposing wrongdoing or incompetence, is a powerful motivator. If you don't ever criticise the people you write about, the work will be far less satisfying.

    Publications could go further to avoid the sort of capture you describe though. They should be frank with their readers about how they are funded, how their visits to contacts are paid for, what the source of information is, and so on. There's no harm, I think, for trade publications to admit that they are as much an ambassador for the sector they cover as a critic. If your readers understand where you're coming from, they can make better judgments about what you write.

    You can also encourage your readers to hold you to account. By allowing them to comment on your stories, and to criticise you when you give the impression of having been suckered by a company's marketing team, you can provide a variety of accounts that come closer to the truth.

    It's not a perfect system, and there should be as many alternative approaches as possible: like allowing reader comments, having to compete with blogs, subscription magazines, forums and whatever else keeps professional journalists honest, and ensures that there are a variety of approximations of the truth.

    As weird harold says though, online journalism by individuals working on their own, may be more susceptible to this sort of 'capture'. A good example of that, I think, is the fanboy culture around companies like Apple. Despite the fact that many people who blog about their favourite tech manufacturer do it for free, or for very little reward, and have less contact with the people they write about, they're often less critical rather than more so.

     

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