Is It Really a Matter of Life and Death?

July 1, 2012 • Ethics and Quality, Media Economics • by

In the last few years the downfall of the newspaper industry has been predicted excessively – especially in the US.

In a study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism, the ways in which U.S. newspapers covered their own crisis were found to be “exaggerated” and “too emotional.” The study, entitled, “A Matter of Life and Death? Examining the Quality of Newspaper Coverage on the Newspaper Crisis” found that the “crisis” more accurately reflected an overreaction on behalf of journalists.

For two years (from March 2008 to March 2010), media scientists Hsiang Iris Chyi, Seth C. Lewis and Nan Zheng tracked the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the New York Times U.S. newspapers with the highest circulations – for reportage on the newspaper crisis.

The coverage appearing in USA Today can be summed up rather briefly: it was almost nonexistent. There were only two articles within the sample period containing the terms “newspaper” and “circulation.” For this reason, the researchers decided instead to analyze only articles in the Wall Street Journal (52) and the New York Times (90).

Chyi, Lewis and Zheng acknowledge that self-coverage is known to be an area where newspapers frequently do not deliver satisfying results. Self-coverage challenges journalists as conflicts of interest often keep them from reporting objectively.

The results of the study indicate that coverage in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal concentrate on short-term changes, while long-term trends are disregarded and the big picture is overlooked or avoided entirely. In most articles, others are blamed for reduced circulations while the newspapers themselves are rarely identified as potential culprits. Furthermore, journalists rely heavily on sensational language in their reporting.

In more than half of the analyzed articles, journalists utilize only new statistics on circulation. A mere 6.9 percent of articles consider circulation rates before the year 2000. A similar pattern can be detected with statistics on advertising revenue, as 34.7 percent of the articles utilize exclusively recent data, with only 0.7 percent considering long term trends.

Only 6.3 percent of the analyzed articles refer to other industries struggling with the recession, for example the automobile industry, the retail industry, the real estate business and the building sector. Less than one percent of articles address the development of other media industries or the state of the news industry in other countries. Journalists also fail to mention the fact that newspapers in many other countries remain successful, especially in Asia – thus, the problems concerning the newspaper market aren’t as universal as expected.

Diminished advertising revenue is pinned as the main reason for the crisis (70.8 percent of articles), followed by company debts (36.8 percent), decreased readerships (31.9 percent), the economic climate (30.9 percent) and the Internet (24.3 percent). Only a handful of contributions (4.9 percent) hold the newspaper industry itself responsible for its crisis, with newspaper publishers/corporations being the most frequently quoted sources in the articles analyzed.

According to the study’s authors, most of the articles were written to evoke a certain pessimism, with death imagery utilized as a primary catalyst. Terms referencing death (i.e. “perish,” “die,” “dying,” and “kill”) appear over and over again.

U.S. media economics scholar Robert Picard is quoted saying, “Publishers and journalists have become their own worst enemy, because they are running around arguing the sky is falling. And they’re making the situation appear far worse than it is.”

This can be seen in the cases of the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle-Post-Intelligencer and the Tucson Citizen shutdowns which inspired extensive coverage in the U.S. Completely exaggerated, say the researchers, explaining that at this point there’s a newspaper monopoly in most U.S. cities, a trend they claim could even increase the profitability of the newspapers.

Chyi, Lewis and Zheng conclude that newspapers could do far better in reporting on their own crisis. They should present their problems in an overall context, exaggerate to a lesser extent and utilize less emotional language. In return, journalists should focus more on media economics data such as circulation, revenue, costs, profitability, employee turnover and stock price.

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