An economic theory of what journalists do

Fascinating post on why journalists do what they do: it’s all about the economy of getting what they want for the minimum outlay.

According to the paper Journalists and the information-attention markets: Towards an economic theory of journalism by Susanne Fengler & Stephan Russ-Mohl,

“Journalists can be described as rational actors seeking to promote their own interests, reacting to material and non-material incentives and rewards, calculating risks and benefits,” it says. “They seek to maximise attention for their work, they try to minimise costs of investigation and research and to use their sources to their greatest professional benefit, and so forth.”

(Unfortunately, it’s paid-for. So we’ll trust Paul to have got it right.)

Yup, that pretty much sums it up. And it creates blind spots:

“While most agents in all the principal-agent relationships involved in the flow of news processing may, in general, be committed to telling the truth, all of them have incentives to either exaggerate or to withhold some of the truth to their ‘principals’ in order to look better and more professional. The ‘blind spots’ of media coverage are not merely accidental. They are, most frequently, the result of self-interested behaviour.

“If withholding chunks of relevant information can be seen as highly probable, iterative behaviour of all actors involved in news processing, this may add up to a cumulative effect.”

As Paul Bradshaw notes,

In the meantime, this is an essential piece of reading, including an overview of how economic factors have shaped journalism over the past 150 years – helping it move towards from a partisan to an objective format (for mass audiences and unoffended advertisers), influencing content, and providing an “indirect information subsidy” in the shape of public relations. Oh, and don’t miss the footnotes, too.

1 Comment

  1. From the academic journal edited by City J-prof Howard Tumber. I have a copy – and you don’t buy it for the cover…

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