Watching the heart-rending images and stories coming out of Haiti over the last week, we’ve found ourselves worrying not only about the human tragedy but also about how much we really know about what’s going on down there.
The Haitian earthquake is a vivid example of how the world still relies upon the mainstream media to tell the stories that no one else will. The news media is often guilty of overkill, such as when Tribune Co. sent 14 reporters to cover a Super Bowl in which none of its hometown teams played or when reporters jam-pack a Presidential press conference to report on the same thing everyone can see on TV. Haiti is different. A natural disaster needs to be told through many images and personal accounts. There can’t be enough reporters in that devastated region right now.
Who’s going to fill that role as news organizations shrivel? We have more information available to us today than ever, but we rely on organizations with fewer and fewer resources to tell us about important events like the Haitian earthquake. Few bloggers are going to travel to an impoverished and devastated region on their own dime and the participants in the tragedy are too focused on survival to tweet what’s going on around them.
Calculating Media’s Value
A new research study dramatizes the continuing value of mainstream media, albeit in a small domain. The Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism looked at the news ecosystem in Baltimore for one week last summer and followed six major narratives that dominated the headlines. It concluded that while there was lots of chatter going on, eight out of 10 stories merely repeated or repackaged information published in mainstream media and 95% of all new information came from traditional media sources.
The most important source of original reporting was the Baltimore Sun, which contributed nearly half of all original news reported in the area. However, the study also found that the Sun produced 32% fewer stories than it did in 1999 and 73% fewer stories than in 1991. The good news is that researchers found 53 different outlets disseminating news. Unfortunately, “83% of stories were essentially repetitive, conveying no new information,” said Digiday Daily. “Of the 17% that did contain new information, nearly all came from traditional media either in their legacy platforms or in new digital ones.” Radio accounted for if a pitiful 7% of all original news.
Perhaps news organizations in the future will mobilize groups of stringers to cover momentous events while cutting back on pointless trips to political conventions. Or perhaps they won’t. A 2008 survey found that, faced with shrinking staffs, newspapers were actually consolidating their coverage on fewer stories and shedding the special interest stuff that didn’t draw large audiences.
An interesting side note is that the Pew study also found that 63% of the stories were initiated by government officials, most notably the police. Since those institutions generally don’t talk to anyone but the traditional press, perhaps a bigger issue is how to democratize access to the sources of information.
Public relations blogger and new media expert Shel Holtz contributes some interesting perspective. He points out that while social media is serving as an effective means of accelerating knowledge of a news event, “it’s not panning out as a replacement for professional journalism.” Social media has had considerable value in the Haitian disaster as a fund-raising vehicle, but not as a primary news source.
The Newspaper Association of America might consider how it could use the public’s fixation on the Haitian disaster to tactfully point out that it was mainstream media that brought this story to the world. Perhaps the industry can use events like this to warm consumers to the idea that these services have value and deserve to be supported.
By the way, Google has used its satellite imaging service to dramatically document the devastation in the region. The Google Earth images are available here and will be continually updated.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 20th, 2010 at 8:16 am and is filed under Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Journalism, NewMedia, Newspapers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.