Will Your Journalism Matter in the Year 2514?

July 15, 2014

EJ Academy

Few Front-Page Stories Have Long-Term Relevance, Classroom Research Project Finds


Future Impact of Front-page Stories

Of the total 379 newspaper articles culled from newspaper front pages by a recent study, only about 8.7 percent were about topics that could have an impact on the lives of people living in the far future.
               Source: Seamon, Youngstown State University

Imagine a historian 500 years from now glancing at the front pages of today's newspapers. Would that person be impressed with how forward-thinking our media and our society were, or would he or she see myopic ancestors so mired in the unimportant details of the moment as to be blind to things that could have made the future better? That’s a question every journalism student ought to think long and hard about.

The inescapable conclusions of such a thought experiment should lead journalism faculty and students alike away from the status quo of mainstream media and toward a new future for journalism where long-term sustainability is valued more than the glib, perfunctory topics that monopolize the news today but do nothing to help humanity solve its biggest problems.

Part of the media’s social responsibility is to try, through reporting, to secure social wellbeing for future generations. But what does this look like in practice?

I began experimenting in my undergraduate journalism classes last year with a self-guided project that would allow students to investigate the social-responsibility role of the media, particularly regarding the long-term implications of events and issues they cover. Eventually, I decided the most effective way to do this would also generate data that could be used in a research project, so I developed a feasible methodology, gained institutional review board approval and launched the study.

The project generated some striking results that I have since incorporated into a research paper. The students gained critical insight into the workings (and failings) of the mass media, not to mention an awareness of how academic research works and, I hope, how practical and important research can be if directed toward worthwhile questions.

Designing our study

Our class project started with asking journalism students to think about what journalists are doing to secure a better future. Then we moved on to a formal content analysis of 10 daily American newspapers. We were looking for front-page stories of “long-term relevance,” which we defined as stories that the subject matter could have, or could have had, an impact that will be felt in the lives of people living in the far future, say 500 years from now.

We developed two hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: In American daily newspapers, issues without long-term relevance will outnumber issues with long-term relevance.

Hypothesis 2: In American daily newspapers, many issues with long-term relevance that could have been covered will fail to be reported.

Data collection occurred in November-December 2013, after the government shutdown and the Syrian chemical weapons stories had faded from the spotlight. This period of time was not one of those periods of media obsession with a single story, and therefore should have been a good opportunity to see coverage on a range of important issues.

We examined 10 newspapers from around the United States: From the Northeast, the Bangor (Maine) Daily News and the Times Union (Albany, NY); from the South, the Augusta (GA) Chronicle, the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader, and the Sun-Herald (Biloxi, MS); from the Midwest, the Fort Wayne (IN) News-Sentinel and the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal; and from the West, the Los Angeles Times, The Columbian (Vancouver, WA) and the Casper (WY) Star-Tribune.

Our process was three-fold. First, three coders analyzed all front-page stories from the 10 newspapers on 10 separate dates: Nov. 5, 8, 13, 15, 18, 20, 22 and 25, and Dec. 2 and 4. The selected stories, 379 in all, were coded into two categories: 1) those that likely will have significance in the lives of people living 500 years from now and 2) those that likely will become irrelevant within 500 years.

Second, the three coders searched a variety of additional, alternative news sources from the same time period for stories exhibiting great long-term relevance. These articles were labeled and combined with the first set of articles.

Third, 12 journalism students ranked the stories from the combined data sets in order of the strength of their long-term relevance. The story believed to offer the greatest long-term relevance was ranked first and the story with the weakest long-term relevance was ranked last. Each of the 12 students ranked the stories independently, and then their rankings were averaged. The articles were stripped of bylines and other identifiers, so the students didn’t know which articles were from which data set.

Top topics? Fate of humanity, literally

Of the total 379 newspaper articles culled from newspaper front pages, only about 8.7 percent were about topics that could have an impact on the lives of people living in the far future — thus exhibiting long-term relevance. This supported our first hypothesis, that issues without long-term relevance would predominate.

Our second hypothesis was also supported. Coders browsing alternative news sites easily found an additional 30 articles with long-term relevance that were not covered by any of the 10 newspapers analyzed for this study.

In addition, we found that articles from alternative news sites ranked much higher than the sampled newspaper articles on the strength of their long-term relevance. The noticeably higher rankings of the alternatively sourced articles seemed to be a function of both what the articles were about as well as how the topics were covered. Further study, perhaps in the form of a framing analysis, might reveal the specific processes contributing to this effect.

It’s worth looking at the top articles of long-term relevance. The students examined a total of 63 articles, 33 culled from the newspapers and 30 from alternative sources.

The article unanimously ranked as having the greatest long-term relevance, “What 11 Billion People Mean for Earth” (Live-Science.com, Nov. 19), was a series of investigative reports looking at the impact of human overpopulation on a variety of resources. It paints an alarming picture of the future if humans cannot achieve sustainability in a number of areas, but especially in reversing over-population. Whether humans exist at all in 500 years could depend a great deal on the outcome of the topics addressed in this report.

The No. 2 article, “Russian Fireball Fallout: Huge asteroid numbers raise stakes of impact threat” (Science, Nov. 11), detailed admissions from scientists that there are many uncharted asteroids capable of doing tremendous damage to the Earth.

Alternatively, students said that many of the articles winding up near the bottom of the rankings were there only because of how they were written. In many cases, the topics could have been done in such a way as to make them much more relevant in the future. For instance, “China easing one-child policy” (USA Today, Nov.15), which was ranked 58, could have rivaled the No. 1 article if it had tackled the human overpopulation issue. Doing so should have been easy, given that China’s one-child policy is a population control measure. Instead, the article managed to talk about the political and economic implications of the change without substantively addressing the overpopulation issue.

Relevance also conveyed in how topics covered

This content analysis of 379 front-page newspaper articles found that more than 91 percent of articles will lack any long-term relevance or impact on people’s lives in the far future. Plenty of potential story topics rich in long-term significance exist, but when newspapers do cover such topics, they often fail to write about them in a way that emphasizes the long-term relevance the subject matter has for society.

These results suggest that most American daily newspapers are not covering issues of long-term relevance as well as they should. Journalists could do a better job of helping to ensure a sustainable future if they would report issues of long-term relevance whenever and wherever those issues exist. Under the current system of story selection and reporting methods, many opportunities to do so are ignored.

The key to improving journalism’s long-term relevance lies both in changing what the media cover and how they cover it. To do so, journalists need to give more consideration to the future and what might be needed to ensure that it is healthy and prosperous.

Marc C. Seamon, Ph.D., teaches journalism at Youngstown State University in Ohio. His research interests include the role of the mass media in affecting social awareness of sustainability and environmental issues.

To see the full research study, go here.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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