Why do 99 percent of journalists cover 1 percent of the news?

In 2006, Columbia University professor and New York Times columnist Samuel Freedman published “letters to a young journalist,” an inspirational entreaty that among other things calls on would-be reporters to “accept the burden of independent thought.”

It is as if he were girding them to resist what even then was the suffocating conformity that too often defines the news in the echo chamber of the 24-7 socially-mediated world.  In his book, Freedman quotes the words of his dean, New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann, who said:  “It often seems to me that at any given moment 99 percent of the journalists are covering 1 percent of what’s happening in the world.”

Extraordinary work gets done with regularity by those who don’t follow the pack. But last week the pack was again in full view as the dust-up on the tarmac, in which Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer pointed a finger at President Obama, joined  Newt Gingrich’s call to colonize the moon in leading the hit parade of over-covered events.

Next week, no doubt, as the Super Bowl crescendo reaches fortissimo, we’ll have the Tom Brady-Eli Manning “dust-up on the gridiron.” (Dust-ups are big in the world of news conflict, manufactured or otherwise.)

It’s not hard to measure the public’s and news media’s obsession with certain stories. Type Brewer, Obama and tarmac into Google, for example, and you’ll get 15.6-million hits. Type in Gingrich and lunar colony, and you’ll get 37.5-million hits. On news.google.com, which only tallies posts on mainstream and alternative news site, the numbers are lower but still sizable.   Under a Washington Post blog titled “Gov. Jan Brewer calls Obama ‘thin-skinned’ after tarmac encounter,” the website identifies 1,249 other news articles on the same theme.  And that’s a follow-up article.

All this over a few minute encounter no reporter so much as overheard. (Pool reporters saw the two speaking, sometimes over each other, and took the photo of Brewer jabbing at the president, but both were out of earshot.)

In an interview with ABC News, the AP reported, the president “said the encounter with Brewer ‘is a classic example of things getting blown out of proportion.'”

I’ll leave that for you to decide. I, however, heard precious little about Obama’s State of the Union address the rest of the week.

Still, what bothers me even more than the overkill of coverage devoted to certain stories is the news that doesn’t get covered as a result.  What’s missing from the news is almost impossible to gauge. But time and resources are finite, and, in the news business, shrinking.

Covering enterprise stories — those that don’t get announced or happen in front of the pack or pool — requires, as Freedman notes, getting “out the door and into the hurly burly.” It also, he adds, demands intellectual curiosity, energy and independent spirit.

I would add imagination. Journalism can help us learn about lives we don’t live. It can put us in the shoes of others.  It can help us solve our own problems. But only if editors and producers unchain their reporters. Or if those reporters simply take the chance to stray.

If I can’t tell you what stories I haven’t seen recently, I can name a few that would interest me.

1. As Super Bowl blather whips into a frenzy, I’d like to see a sports reporter explore in depth how players train and how they equip themselves to go to war every Sunday. Who is the best trainer in the game? What makes him (or her) special and what regimen does he use? I’d like to know.

2. I’d like to look inside the homes that unemployed or underemployed college graduates are returning to with  degrees that bring debt but little else. Is there a good way to go back home again?  What are the adjustments?

3. I’d like, in the United States,  to be taken behind the veil. I want to know what day-to-day life is like for a muslim woman, what kinds of looks and comments she must endure. What kinds of answers she gives and how she discusses this societal suspicion with friends.

4. Perhaps it’s too soon to tell, but I’d like to know what environmental and agricultural impacts this mild and snow-free New England winter could have come spring, and whether they are likely to build on a pattern that the overwhelming number of scientists agree is part of climate change.

5. If Occupy Wall Street changed perceptions of economic disparity in this country, I still don’t know how a family right at the economic median survives. What kinds of economic choices does the quintessential middle-income family have to make?  I want to be a fly on the wall in that family’s kitchen.

6. Finally, I’d like some help — help making decisions in my own life. How can I pick the best bank, the best doctor, the best mortgage?  How do I know when I’ve saved enough to retire? I’m not much interested in generalized yack either. I’d like to see stories like this at a local level, stories that help me figure out, for example, which banks bilk their clients with a variety of silly fees and which don’t.

Granted: This is a whimsical and incomplete list. My point is  that dust-ups in the desert may be good for gab. But at the end of the day I’m no wiser and no more knowledgable for reading them.  They are just easy to cover.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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