Lazy journalism as structural bias…

In another life, long ago, I was a news photographer. I was only three years out of college the summer of 1982, and I was working in Washington D.C. At the time, I thought that was seriously cool. But I rapidly became bored because every bit of news I saw was manufactured. I quit that job–later to become a reporter, editor, and freelancer–after I missed the only real news that I actually witnessed that summer.

Sen. William Roth (R-Del.) was much in the news that summer with his tax cut bill (Roth-Kemp). For a publicity stunt, the Senator and others arranged to have an 8-foot apple pie baked and delivered to the Mall near the Washington Monument. They gave free pie to passersby as a symbol of the tax cut giving back a piece of the pie. Yadda, yadda, yadda…until three members of something called (as I recall anyway) the Coalition for Creative Non-violence leaped onto the stage and dove right into the pie.

I missed it. MISSED IT! I was totally asleep, lulled into a Washington stupor expecting nothing unscripted to happen (or, expecting that nothing scripted could possibly be interesting). I stood there, mouth agape, as these three jokers belly-flopped right into the pie. My cameras hung around my neck–useless. I was ashamed of myself.

There are many reasons why the Washington press corps missed the Lott story on 5 December. Paul Janensch certainly has a piece of it when he says:

When I worked in Washington, I was struck by how boring it can be to cover a carefully scripted event. Often the reporters there already know how they will frame their stories and don’t pay attention to what’s actually said at a Congressional hearing or a press briefing.

Or a birthday party.

Or a publicity stunt.

Okay, so this is how they missed it for the evening news (although the ABC political blog, The Note, carried it on 6 December) and the morning papers. What happened on 7 December?

I was lazy that summer. The reporters at that birthday party, except for one ABC producer, were lazy. Part of this laziness may be attributed to the Washington stupor. And the Washington stupor may be attributed to several of the structural biases of journalism. Scripted events do not fit the bad news bias, so they are thought immediately boring. Scripted events do not fit the temporal bias because the timing is nearly always artificial. Scripted events do fit the narrative and status quo biases because these events present a set plot that nearly always affirms the system of American government. (via MediaMinded)