The News Gap

The News Gap cover

The News Gap

By Earl H. Perkins | published Wednesday, Febuary 12, 2014 |
Thursday Review associate editor

Sports, crime, entertainment and the weather are the subjects people really want to know about, but major media organizations primarily disseminate stories concerning politics, international relations and economics.

The News Gap: When the Information Preferences of the Media and the Public Diverge (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press), a recently-published book written by Pablo J. Boczkowski and Eugenia Mitchelstein, studies why information preferences of the media and the public are divergent, while also explaining how news markets work. The scope and complexity of the book stretched it into a large-scale multi-year endeavor.

If you follow stories trending on CNN, USA Today, the Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Time magazine, The Guardian or many other high-profile news groups, you notice various patterns and slanted coverage. They all want you to think they're unbiased, but that has never truly been the case. In the internet age, many news services have emerged and evolved quickly, often along partisan lines, with Fox News and MSNBC serving as the highest profile examples of that divergence. But others have filled the role of combat blogging as well, and these range from The Huffington Post on the left and Red on the right.

The News Gap attempts to quantify news gathering and dissemination in a way that few books have ever attempted, and the authors give particular attention to the widening gap between what draws readers and viewers toward engagement—especially in an age when an editor or publisher’s instinct or self-appointed preference comes into direct conflict with hyper-accurate forms of digital tracking. Once, such tracking would have been speculative. Now it can sway entire networks and news organizations.

Why do feature articles about overweight cats or grainy videos of car chases routinely attract thousands more viewers and clicks than, say, an article about the Greek financial crisis or the U.S. presidential elections? Why would articles about Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson or Miley Cyrus routinely trump articles about the Syrian civil war, Wall Street or the NSA? And why would the news services bother to accommodate—and some would say—pander, to such preferences? Just weeks ago on MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell, surely responding to the directives of producers speaking into her earpiece, was forced to quickly cut away from a live interview with U.S. Representative Jane Harman, speaking live from Davos, in order to take viewers instead to the bond hearing of Justin Bieber in a Miami courtroom.  Weather reports, once very nearly the exclusive domain of local TV and radio stations, now often take the top slot in the major networks evening newscasts.

Most Thursday Review readers can easily grasp this disparity with a few hours’ worth of casual monitoring of social media, where recipes for desserts, photos of dogs hugging cats and videos of laughing babies easily outnumber other “shares” which might involve politics, economics or health.

Example: our recent recap of President Obama’s State of the Union address, and a related article about Obama’s struggle to maintain the loyalty of progressives within the Democratic Party drew only a few dozen interactions on Facebook, Twitter, Google + and the sharing service Stumble Upon. On the other hand, two recent articles about the Super Bowl drew hundreds of views, and a third article discussing how CBS’s decision to air Thursday Night NFL games next fall might conflict with the popular sitcom Big Bang Theory—well, it very nearly went viral within the first few hours.  On Stumble Upon, an article about the health benefits of blueberries received twenty times the "shares" as a more timely piece about the NSA and its massive metadata program.

I wish the book had delved further into news gatherers being human, therefore (like most of us) being selective in their choices of questions they will, or won't, ask. Editors, also human, then rewrite that work, deciding which parts of the story will be emphasized or de-emphasized. Finally, you—the reader—will seize the opportunity to make the finished product conform, more-or-less, to your opinions. Or, like many readers these days, you will reject what you have just read as being of a patently partisan or tainted nature.

Most news organizations are now owned (just as they were decades ago) by huge corporations whose primary goal is making money, so fact-checking and carefully vetting sources are secondary goals to ratings, reader loyalty and ad revenue.

The News Gap analyzed more than 50,000 stories on 20 news sites spanning seven countries from North and South America to Western Europe. There's a huge gap in news preferences, but the gap was not caused by ideological orientation and national media culture, according to the authors. It always narrows around heightened political activity, when readers attempt to quickly inform themselves concerning public affairs (i.e. presidential elections or government crises).

The book looks closely at the evolving processes editors now face in a digitized world. The authors tracked, for example, the homepages of CNN and The Washington Post on the same days, measuring the amount of space the headlines prepared for website visitors. The authors then compared those screenshots with those articles most viewed on those same days. The contrasts can be startling. Example: the top stories on CNN's homepage on November 4, 2009 were "Former HP CEO Fiorina jumps into Senate race" and "A trip into the secret online cloud." But in the end the most-clicked stories were "Jessica Simpson finds a bosom buddy" and "Disputed evidence in spotlight as Amanda Knox trial nears end."

Web-native forms of storytelling, including weblogs and user-generated content on mainstream news sites, have also not affected the gap as much as the conventional wisdom maintains. Their analysis extends through the 2012 U.S. presidential election, as the authors noted troubling consequences associated with the connections between communication, technology and politics in the digital age.

The massive amount of information they culled from sources is actually broken down in clear charts and graphs which explains their fascinating methodology. The coda, appendix, notes, references and index take up a large percentage of the book, and perhaps no other book on this subject contains as much hard data and as many easy-to-digest graphs as this book.

Boczkowski is a professor and director of the program in media, technology and society at Northwestern University. He has authored Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers (MIT Press) and News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance. Mitchelstein is a PhD candidate in the program in media, technology and society at Northwestern.

This is a deep and intricate book which attempts to make sense of a complex subject, and we recommend it if you want a clearer understanding of how the world of “news” is changing.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Beware the Siren Servers; review of Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier; Thursday Review; September 3, 2013.

Local Journalism, Wired; review of The Wired City by Dan Kennedy; Thursday Review; January 1, 2014.

Of Showmanship & The News; review of Roger Ailes: Off Camera by Zev Chafets; Thursday Review; January 7, 2014.