Journalism, civic engagement and AP’s “A New Model for News” report

I started writing this as a comment on John Robinson’s blog, and then I realised that this is what blogging is really for, a distributed conversation. The comment grew a little too long so I decided to post it here.

John Robinson, a veteran reporter and editor in the US, highlighted how audiences in the US were distracted from President Obama’s State of the Union address by the manhunt for a former policeman in California. After getting past my initial reaction of ’twas ever thus’, I was quickly reminded of an excellent study commissioned by the Associated Press and carried out by the Context-based Research Group. They spoke to young news consumers around the world about how and why they consumed news. (The full report is still on Slideshare):

John offers up solutions, but sadly, you’ll have to file this post in evidence supporting his main premise rather than offering new solutions. For a couple of years, quotes from the study were a mainstay of talks I gave about how journalism can win the battle for attention.The New Model for News report said that the “essential finding” of the report was:

“The subjects were overloaded with facts and updates and were having trouble moving more deeply into the background and resolution of news stories.”

What’s really fascinating is the importance of the issue of resolution. The participants liked sports and entertainment stories, not because they were shallow, cotton candy stories but because of “the level of resolution that this type of news offers. Stories tend to have a beginning, middle and end or clear next steps.”

As for in-depth stories, they wanted to follow them but found the current formats didn’t give the social currency they were looking for.

This flags up all kinds of issues. For one, is the chronic paralysis in US politics intimately linked to issues around the coverage? Is there a way to change the coverage to present possible resolutions to engage people in the civic process and provide some way for people to weigh up these resolutions? The study found:

Participants in this study showed signs of news fatigue; that is, they appeared debilitated by information overload and unsatisfying news experiences. Many consumers in the study were so overwhelmed and inundated by news that they just did not know what to do. Participants with news fatigue would try to ascertain whole news stories, but they regularly and repeatedly were left unsatisfied. Ultimately, news fatigue brought many of the participants to a learned helplessness response. The more overwhelmed or unsatisfied they were, the less effort they were willing to put in.

I have my own theories about failings in political coverage. I worked in Washington as a reporter for seven years, and so much coverage of politics is about covering politics as a business, rather than as a democratic function with wider opportunities for engagement. Outside of Washington, as well as outside the Westminster bubble of British politics, too much coverage of politics is about policy as drama. I think the latter response is to inject some narrative into politics that might satisfy the need for resolution that news consumers want, but I often find it lacking.

The research was and still is fascinating, and I don’t think much has changed. Sadly, the report came out in June 2008, just as the world was plunged into economic crisis, and I think a lot of deeper thinking about it was lost. Now, as the world continues to struggle with the fallout from that crisis, I’d argue that we need to revisit the report and see what it means not only for coverage of civics, public policy and global affairs but “wicked problems”.