Why Newspapers Have Lost Their Credibility

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Recent blogs have commented on the appalling misinformation masquerading as reporting in at least two of the nation’s top newspapers, The New York Times and the Boston Globe. The issue concerns the diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder in children.

    I do not have the inside scoop to explain what exactly is going on in newsrooms around the country, but I can offer my insights from my own experience as a financial journalist and from my general knowledge of the news industry, together with the knowledge I bring as the only journalist covering my illness full-time.

    Believe it or not, shortly after the publication of “The Bipolar Child” (by Demitri and Janice Papolos) in 2000, the media took a sympathetic view of child bipolar. Reporters – print and air – actually took the trouble to interview both the experts and the parents of children with the illness and tell their stories. The result was the media at its best, raising awareness about a gravely misunderstood illness.

    This is not to say the media was motivated by a higher purpose. These stories all had a strong human interest component, and human interest does sell newspapers.

    What has happened since? Two things: 1) The news industry has taken a major financial hit, tremendously affecting the quality of news reporting and feature writing, and 2) The media is emphasizing sensationalism at the expense of thoughtful reporting. Both are inter-related.

    The high profit margins and local monopolies enjoyed by newspapers until recently have obscured the fact that newspapers have been in slow decline for decades, with steadily shrinking circulations. At the same time, the authority of network news and related outlets has greatly diminished. Over the decades, in order to maintain their high profit margins, newspapers especially have quietly scaled back their operations, hoping their readers were too stupid to notice.

    Over the last several years, as traditional revenue streams have dried up, this has reached crisis proportions. Instead of responding creatively, panicked news executives have reacted the only way they know how – with the slasher. In a nutshell, stupid people are running newspapers while all the smart people are at Google.

    I encountered this slasher mentality working on Rupert Murdoch newspapers back in the eighties in Australia and New Zealand. Senior reporters and editors were encouraged to leave. Junior reporters got assigned stories senior reporters should have been covering, with no adequate editorial oversight. Good journalism and good journalists became a devalued commodity.

    The fact that newspapers managed to keep their credibility intact over the years is due to a highly dedicated cadre of committed journalists. These individuals are not in it for the money. They are motivated out of a sense of a higher calling. They are heroes in every sense of the word. But, eventually, most of them burn out and leave. School teachers get better pay for less work.

    Now to the sensational side of the industry. Sensationalism sells papers. Sensationalism results in journalism awards. The media can offer a tremendous public service through sensationalism in the form of exposing corrupt political and business and medical practices. The catch is a good piece of investigative journalism is a highly labor-intensive and capital-intensive effort.

    You see where this is going: A need for sensationalist stories, but no resources to do a decent job. Something needs to go on the front page, and fast.

    In February this year, the media were handed a sensationalist story on a silver platter. Four-year-old Rebecca Riley, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, died while on an antipsychotic medication. The facts of the tragedy have yet to fully emerge, but it appears highly likely that the cause had nothing to do with standard medical care.

    You guessed it. The New York Times and The Boston Globe took every short cut in the book. In the case of The New York Times, the reporter involved was also working on a drug industry expose. He recklessly linked the two stories on the fly, without taking the time to inform himself about the illness or to see if the facts he uncovered actually made any sense.

    In the case of The Boston Globe, the assignment was drawn by a junior reporter who had only covered one bipolar story (very superficially) while at the Globe and no stories on child bipolar disorder. He was not a full-time medical reporter. He clearly did not know the illness, had no prior contact with the experts, and had obviously never talked to the families. The result was that the ravings of an antipsychiatry crackpot were treated as valid medical opinion.

    My guess is that an antipsychiatrist with an agenda spoon fed a very naïve Globe reporter, but this is only speculation. In any event, no one in the editorial chain of command at either paper was sufficiently informed to prevent these stories from going on the front page, or, at the very least, to demand that their reporters turn in better homework.
    In any event, the free market has already spoken. Newspapers, as we used to know them, cease to exist. As a journalist and an ardent believer in an informed public, I mourn their passing.

    In five years, newspapers, in any shape or form, may no longer exist. The future belongs to Google. The last paper on the last newsstand on the last corner of the world will certainly be a mockery of the high ideals that once governed journalism. It will probably be filled with ads for massage parlors. I, for one, will not mourn its passing.
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Published On: June 20, 2007