Media love bad news; you don’t have to

Reporters question Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) after a press confernce
Greg Nash

Blame Watergate.

The final weeks of 2021 have seen a rush of commentary accusing mainstream media of accentuating Biden administration missteps, while ignoring significant accomplishments. 

But this is nothing new. It’s a hardened habit among the Washington press corps that traces its origins back nearly half-a-century, with the notorious scandal that brought down Richard Nixon.

Few commentators acknowledge this. Instead, veteran journalists and analysts today blame readers and viewers for the emphasis on gloom-and-doom — evidence of what’s called a “bad news bias.” In order to attract an audience, the media have to give people what they want — and what people want is bad news.

This bleak tilt does exist. The need to seek out bad news is hard-wired in our DNA; we use negative information to protect ourselves against life’s dangers. When natural disasters strike,  reporters cover them non-stop — and, yes, clicks and ratings rise non-stop, too. Floods, fires, and tornados put our brains on high alert. Video of a destructive aftermath even moves us to find ways to help, with a sense that any of us could be victims next time.

Politics are not like that. The “bad news bias” doesn’t really apply here like it does for natural disasters. Few read the umpteenth story on Biden’s trouble corralling various factions of his party and think, “there but for the grace of God go I.” Pessimistic Beltway reporting appeals instead to something more superficial in human nature: cynicism. 

Watergate didn’t create media cynicism — but it certainly helped it along. In the years following Nixon’s resignation, Washington correspondents kept a sharp lookout for anything that looked like a hit sequel to Carl Bernstein’s and Bob Woodward’s investigation. Some of what they uncovered was important and worthwhile, including the FBI’s Abscam operation in the late 1970s and the Iran-Contra affair during the 1980s.

But too many were minor events the media elevated by tacking on a trendy “-gate” suffix. Few people remember — and history little notes — the alleged misconduct behind Billygate, Debategate, Filegate, Nannygate, Travelgate, and Troopergate. (Actually, three different Troopergates.)

Despite this, the journalistic mindset that emphasizes scandal now permeates all Washington reporting. Healthy skepticism about those in power no longer seems sufficient; cynicism lives in its place. Reporters who want to appear smart and worldly also need to appear jaded and sardonic. Few are criticized for being overly pessimistic.

Instead, the worst sin is to seem supportive of a politician or administration by reporting the positives. Those correspondents are quickly dismissed as being “in the tank” — brainwashed by the spin doctors at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

There’s a cumulative effect to all of this. Most Americans don’t pay close attention to every twist and turn in Congress or the White House; most voters’ eyes glaze over as soon as someone tries to attach a “-gate” suffix to some Washington bruhaha. But, over time, they do feel a chipping away of confidence in government, of faith in basic institutions. Year after year, polls show we care less and less about those institutions that keep the country going. 

None of this is to say that reporters should somehow ignore governmental failures, mistakes or corruption. This is more about what Washington correspondents, producers and editors consider important news day-in and day-out: What goes on page one; which story makes it into a broadcast’s first segment? Where is the balance?

One example: Amidst all the coverage about President Biden’s struggles with Congress or COVID last week, there was also news that the Senate had confirmed the 40th Biden federal judicial nominee. That tied a record set by Ronald Reagan decades ago. Recent changes on the Supreme Court have made it extremely clear how important judicial appointments are. But news of this accomplishment appeared in one national paper’s print edition on page 22, below the fold.

The story was easy to miss. It should not have been. 

But to change that brand of news judgement, political journalists need to change their perspective about what really matters to their audience — and to the country as a whole. After half-a-century, that will take some doing.

But it would help viewers, readers, and voters if the media acknowledged that sometimes — even in Washington — good news is real news too.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags American journalism bad news bad news bias Bob Woodward Carl Bernstein Joe Biden Media bias News political reporting US news media Watergate

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