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Media Troubled By Long-term Thinking

by Kirsten Sanford, Mar 27 2009

Eric Alterman from The Daily Beast has an interesting analysis of President Obama’s recent press conference. His take on the coverage of the event was that the press are troubled by Obama’s long-term thinking, which doesn’t mesh well with their short-term news cycles.

CNN wants emotions, theatrics, the stamping of feet, mano-a-mano anger, and outrage contests. This is a presidency defined by cable news food-fights and Maureen Dowd-style armchair psychoanalysis. Obama wants to “know what he’s talking about,” pick the best policy to achieve it, and explain it as calmly as he can to his country.

I’m curious to see how the contest turns out. Will Obama give in to the pressures of the press to deliver a sound-bite or some kind of emotional outburst that will keep the pundits busy for weeks? Or, will he continue on his tack of cool-headed, clear explanations that deal more with long-term planning than instant gratification?

Whether or not you agree with his budget requests, all outward appearances are that he and his advisers are thinking carefully about what steps to take that will have long-term beneficial effects. This doesn’t necessarily help the press out, who want a story with a whiz-bang headline right now.

PRESIDENT OBAMA THINKS ABOUT BUDGET

OBAMA PLANS FOR FUTURE

CRYSTAL BALL SALES PLUMMET WITH OBAMA IN OFFICE

(heh. That last one is for The Onion)

I am interested in how this will turn out, you see, because I think it has certain parallels to science and science reporting. Science has trouble getting media attention because it is a long-term endeavor. The whiz-bang headline of today might be wrong tomorrow. Journalists and editors know that papers need to sell, and sensational news is the way to get peoples’ attention and sell pages. But, constant contradiction will reduce the draw and foster mistrust.

“Don’t scientists know anything?”

Can media learn how report on ideas that might have future effects without resorting to conflict? Will they learn from Obama how to explain complicated concepts to the public? If a change in reporting news from out of Washington occurs, will science reporting benefit as well?

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28 Responses to “Media Troubled By Long-term Thinking”

  1. MadScientist says:

    Huh. That’s funny, I thought Obama was doing very well in keeping up his press appearances. I think it’s great that he’s trying to take a long-term approach to things and get stuff started even though he knows full well he may not get credit because he’s likely to be out of office before much happens. (Phew – I’d better hide from those fanatics who hate people who write run-on sentences.)

    What we don’t need is another Dubbyah going “Hee haw! Let’s lynch ‘em! We’ll bomb them back to the stone age!” I prefer a sensible president with a boring reality-based agenda. I’ve told folks over and over again before we invaded Iraq that we’ll have to be there at least 20 years to make a difference (you’ve got to control the education of the next generation) and that our soldiers will be shot at throughout that time no matter what good we get done. One of the most sensible authorities I’ve seen on the Afghan war estimates that troops can be withdrawn in perhaps 10 years – I think he’s way too optimistic; Afghanistan is in even worse shape than Iraq.

    So, go for it Obama! It’s better to be known by history as a president with forethought than as a president who kept a nation laughing by playing the fool.

  2. llewelly says:

    CRYSTAL BALL SALES PLUMMET WITH OBAMA IN OFFICE

    Now that would be a win for skepticism.

  3. Max says:

    To quote Patrick, “ugh, keep the politics away from this site please.”

    So, does Obama have a Five-Year Plan for the National Economy?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five-Year_Plan

  4. Julian says:

    I don’t get the disdain for politics (especially on a post that had very little to do with politics.) Forcing individuals to support their claims of what would be better for the nation (or whatever) sounds like the best way to breed moderation in a field that’s growing more extremist everyday.

  5. fluffy says:

    The last thing any country needs is its head of state acting in a way that benefits the very institution which has helped it to become so utterly messed-up.

  6. Brian M says:

    You can see this with their health reporting as well. “Scientists say drinking a gallon of vodka a day can help lower cholesterol” or some hyped up mega-crap. If they can’t find a story in the abstract of a science paper, they won’t even look at it. I’ve started watching some american shows that come in on the higher cable channels here in canada. The intro to the news is always accompanied by a booming sound, with some “The world is coming to an end, heres what you need to know” type of headline. I never realized how bad the american media had gotten until I saw those. The american channels that are lower on the dial, from seattle instead of detroit, seem quite a bit more docile. They have some hype stories, but not “insane” stories.

  7. tmac57 says:

    How about these for proposed sensational headlines: ‘ Hollywood Stars Responsible for Soaring Childhood Disease Deaths!!!’ or ‘Homeopathic Doctors Give Patients Water-Claim It’s Medicine!!!’
    Now those are stories I’d like to see in the mainstream media!

  8. SeanG says:

    I like tmac57’s idea. The stories are there. They could just be reported from the science angle instead of the celebrity one. I’d like to see less “equal time” on some topics, too. If you bring on a doctor to talk about autism there really is no reason to balance it with some anti-vac wacko. Science handles it’s own opposing views. It’s called research.

  9. Patrick says:

    Hehe Max, I came back to say the same thing again. This post has almost nothing to do with skepticism. There are a plethora of sites I goto for politcal coverage. That is not why I come here.

  10. It also forces people to accept the opinion presented as fact that:

    “Whether or not you agree with his budget requests, all outward appearances are that he and his advisers are thinking carefully about what steps to take that will have long-term beneficial effects.”

    Like Patrick says, if I want subjective political opinions presented as objective fact I’ll go to the political websites.

  11. MadScientist says:

    @BrianM: Wow – is Canada really that isolated from us southern folks.

    I had been elsewhere on the planet for about 15 years and first returned to New York in 2003 and I was shocked; the news may as well have been fabricated by Pravda because it bore little resemblance to news reports from the rest of the world. Fox is not news – nor is it entertainment (except for some increasingly rare episodes of The Simpsons). The TV really has become “the idiot box”.

  12. MadScientist says:

    @Patrick: don’t you think people should be skeptical of the news? Merely involving the president doesn’t really make it a political thing. I never had much faith in any news story being accurate which is why I always try to find other independent reports. Unfortunately you’ll find only a few sources like AFP; to a large extent everyone feeds off the same wire then adds their own little bit of BS – it’s a little like the various gospels of the bible. Personally I’ve always found it bizarre that the news has to be presented to be ‘exciting’ rather than just presented as is; why do people think they must lie about everything? Why do people think that the truth is no good? There are still many people out there who have a morbid fear of science because they believe it will ruin their delusions and make everything seem boring.

  13. tmac57 says:

    @MadScientist : “Personally I’ve always found it bizarre that the news has to be presented to be ‘exciting’ rather than just presented as is; why do people think they must lie about everything? Why do people think that the truth is no good? There are still many people out there who have a morbid fear of science because they believe it will ruin their delusions and make everything seem boring.”
    Apparently the general American public is the problem. Commercial media is after eyeballs, not the truth. Besides, uncovering facts is a lot of work, who wants to do that when you can cynically dish out any load of tripe, and people will credulously swallow it. They try to cover their tracks by presenting equal weight to stories that don’t have equal evidence, thus confusing the unwary consumers of the “news”.
    Regarding people’s fear of science, that is the #1 problem that I believe has drawn the ‘new skeptics’ movement together, so that’s our job now; to get as much of what we see to be true out there,combat the nonsense, and try not to squabble about political differences to the detriment of an important goal. My opinion only of course.

  14. Bob says:

    I have to ask this, because I do not know: Who does the media answer to? I can understand offenses such as swearing and slander, but if a news source (any medium) misrepresents information, are there consequences for that source? I know that newspapers and magazines sometimes have a little section where they correct errors made in past issues, but do they receive penalties (so they try not to make the mistakes in the first place)?

    I know what would be a good idea: give the same type of coverage rules used for election coverage (equal time for both candidates) in stories about pseudoscience (equal time for the pseudoscience and the science it’s up against). I understand that this could pose problems in giving bad ideas equal weight, but it would be a fair compromise for the media to have a story on something new (good for the media), and yet it still puts in good science (good for all). This way, news stories on pseudoscience would not be like commercials.

    I’d like to see the media operate just like my favorite quote by Obama: “…because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”

  15. Action News says:

    I have worked in the television media for many years and my wife is a newspaper reporter, so I might have a little unique perspective on the matter.

    Shallow, superficial news is on TV for one reason, ratings. We have the ability to see a minute by minute view what people’s watching habits are — when they change the channel, what station they click over to, if they turn off the TV outright. In most cases, the “boring” stories cause people to click. The viewing public loves crime and entertainment, so that’s what we’re going to give them.

    I don’t like it, but I do like having a paycheck. In the meantime, if I can sneak in a science story or argue against doing the story about psychics giving financial advice (a real argument that I had, and won, this week), then I’ll do it.

    But seriously, don’t give us too much stock. Tightening budgets and lower standards have resulted in some very young, and very dumb people giving you the news. With the exception of the networks, don’t trust a word you see on TV news.

  16. Julian says:

    “Hehe Max, I came back to say the same thing again. This post has almost nothing to do with skepticism. There are a plethora of sites I goto for politcal coverage. That is not why I come here.”

    Then go away. Seriously, get lost. And take Max with you.

  17. Patrick says:

    Sorry Julian, but I’m not going anywhere.

  18. Max says:

    No Julian, I stay, YOU go. And take politics with you.

  19. SeanJJordan says:

    Julian, Patrick, Max — really? Must you?

    As for Kirsten’s article, the media is really rooted in the here and now, and the instant availability of news on the Internet has only made things worse. The sky is falling, all the time, and yesterday’s news isn’t worth reporting. Tomorrow’s news is speculation, and journalists aren’t supposed to speculate… unless they can find an “expert” to do it for them in a few brief quotes.

    As much as I hate to say this, I think most people would be best-served NOT to pay any attention to the news, because most of it is just designed to create fear and paranoia. It’s probably better for them to just watch “The Daily Show” or the late night talk shows. Journalism has become a sick field where every tragedy and major crime must be magnified, while every piece of good or encouraging news must become fluff.

  20. Max says:

    Latest piece of encouraging news that will inspire paraplegics to get bitten by spiders.
    http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/090324-bad-spider-bite.html

  21. KoT says:

    I’m skeptical that there are any intelligent people that run this site. Obama is a joke! If there are any “skeptics” here, please chime in on the so-called stimulus plan, universal health care scam, cap-and-trade idiocy, and “overseas contingency operations”!

    I, for one, am “skeptical” of anyone supporting a Messiah that rode in with the false prophets.

  22. MadScientist says:

    @KoT: you’re not making any sense. The topic is the media, not the president, and I’m sure no one has a clue what you’re ranting about when you say something about ‘false prophets’ (for one, there is no evidence that there ever were any *real* prophets). Take your Obama-bashing elsewhere.

  23. sonic says:

    I have been the subject of news stoies many times. What is published in the papers has always been incorrect.
    Actually that isn’t true. When there are sports involved the papers often get it right.
    (Just my experience)

  24. Alastair Scott says:

    @Bob: at least in the UK, there is a general wakening up to the fact that the media are effectively unaccountable; there is little prospect of recompense in the event of error, whether accidental or deliberate. Only one newspaper has an ombudsman, the governing bodies (such as the Press Complaints Commission and the BBC Trust) are weak – they have no statutory powers – and the last resort is a charge of defamation, which is so risky and expensive that it rarely happens.

  25. John Karabaic says:

    I think the most important thing in this article is the comparison between science reporting and political reporting.

    Both science reporters and White House reporters have sacrificed some portion of their integrity to the god of “access”.

    Science reporters get embargoed research results[1] and cultivate relationships with scientists to get their perspective on stories. Negative results are rarely hyped the way positive results are. Rather than investigate, they’ll go for the easy soundbite.

    White House press corps reporters face the same tradeoff: do you want to dig deep, risk pissing people off, and lose your precious “access” to them, or just take it easy.

    A interesting route is training scientists in the art of manipulating…I mean “communicating with” the media.[2] Let’s see how that works out for the pursuit of truth.

    [1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/science-reportings-dark-secret-458300.html

    [2] http://www.onthemedia.org/episodes/2009/02/13/segments/123852

  26. KoT says:

    Hey madscientist … kiss my ass! Obama = media, dipshit!

  27. Perspective says:

    I find this article disturbing for its lack of skepticism. I am willing to wait to find out how President Obama’s plans will work and give him the benefit of the doubt about his good intentions but no legitimate skeptic should assume the correctness because he uses words like long term planning. I think most rational people will admit that looking at long term consequences is appropriate but making radical changes and expecting them to be for the better does not mean that they will be.
    I do believe that there is one area that he is taking the right track, at least in part and that is medical records. Consolidating and making the records available to all pertinent personnel Should reduce errors and save money. I have not heard of any reports on also incorporating the diagnostic questions and responses so that the doctors can show that appropriate care was given and no malpractice took place. This would reduce law suits and therefore reduce the costs of medical care.

  28. Dr. Dave says:

    Well that was kind of you to include “LONG-TERM” in the title.

    And yeah, how DARE you even hint at a link between media and politics? You are bordering dangerously on free speech! Where do you think you are? America?