The fortunes of those in the business of providing the news are of course directly related to the size of their audience. More readers, viewers or listeners means more ads sold. Higher circulation, ratings or traffic means higher ad rates. So it would seem like good business for a newspaper, Web site, TV or radio station in the business of providing news to give priority to the concerns of the largest potential constituencies for any given story.
But it doesn't quite work that way.
Consider, as a hypothetical case, news coverage of a particular credit card bank.* Such a story would have at least five distinct constituencies:
1. The bank's executives
2. The bank's shareholders
3. The bank's employees
4. Satisfied customers (those served by the bank), and
5. Dissatisfied customers (those screwed by the bank).
A reader's membership in one or another of these constituencies affects the way they will read news about the bank.
An article reporting disappointing financial news for the bank, for example, will be read as Bad News for members of all five constituencies, but for different reasons. Members of C1 and C2 will worry about their profits and bonuses; members of C3 will worry about their jobs; the dissatisfied customers of C5 will worry that the bank's financial pressures will result in them being squeezed with higher rates and additional fees; and the satisfied customers of C4 will worry that such possible increases in rates and fees will move them from C4 to C5.
This disappointing financial news may lead to further news of downsizing, or job cuts, at the bank. This may be seen as Good News for C1 and C2, who will see it as evidence that their profits and bonuses are being protected. But it is also, of course, very, very Bad News for the members of C3 who will find in this story evidence that their jobs/health insurance/ability to pay rent are in jeopardy.
These hypothetical stories may in turn be followed by the announcement that the bank may be offsetting some of the projected layoffs with rate and fee hikes. The folks in C3 will be relieved to read this piece of, for them, Good News. But the poor suckers in C5 and the dwindling numbers still precariously dwelling in C4 will see this as very Bad News indeed.
News that lawmakers are considering legislation to regulate the rates and fees charged by credit card banks will be viewed with fear and apprehension by members of C1 and C2, but with hopeful cheer by members of C4 and C5. (The members of C3, at least those able to read the corporate balance sheets detailing billions of dollars of questionable subprime loans, will read this news with a relief that they won't show lest some members of C1 happen to walk by their cubicles.)
The inevitable news that this legislation has been overwhelmingly defeated will seen as Very Good by the owners and executives and Very Bad by the customers.
What I find interesting, and troubling, is that while the various constituencies are listed here in roughly ascending order by size, they are also listed in roughly descending order according to the priority that their concerns are reflected in typical news coverage. Odd, that.
Why should this be? Why should the tiny constituency of C1 be granted so much more attention than the large and growing constituency of C5?
No mystery there, of course — it's just business.
Constituencies like C1 may be tiny in actual numbers, but they control a lot of money. Specifically, they control a lot of the advertising money that serves as the lifeblood of the news agencies.
This dynamic skews almost all American journalism. This is not an original observation — it is hardly even a controversial one.
The "business" sections of most newspapers and business segments of news broadcasts are structured for the concerns of executives and shareholders. Every day they provide news that is of vital importance to employees and customers, but those constituencies are forced to read between the lines for clues of how this news affects their concerns. They may represent the largest constituencies, but because they lack the financial clout of the smaller, wealthier constituencies, their concerns are underrepresented.
By this point you've probably guessed that my worry is not only about journalism, but also about democracy.
In our political system, constituencies like C1 are able to purchase the sympathetic attention of lawmakers and other politicians with campaign contributions in the same way that they purchase the sympathetic attention of newspapers with their advertising dollars. This is not healthy for either our political system or our newspapers. The sicknesses afflicting both are interrelated and mutually reinforcing.
Neither a democracy nor a newspaper can fulfill its legitimate role while giving disproportionate attention small, moneyed constituencies and failing to attend to the competing concerns of the majority of their citizens and readers.
I'm not confident either one can survive as long as this is the case.
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* This is a purely hypothetical case. I am certainly not thinking here of any particular credit card bank, nor of the kind of coverage that any particular newspaper provides of that bank. I am emphatically not thinking here of any particular credit card bank and the corresponding coverage in a particular newspaper that could, you know, hypothetically fire a particular employee for raising these kinds of questions.