Thursday, April 01, 2010

A new kind of agenda-setting

I was invited by the Committee of Concerned Journalists yesterday to participate in a survey the organization is conducting to prepare comments for the Federal Communications Commission, which is in the throes of a project aimed to help shape the future of media. The survey asked several interesting open-ended questions about the state of journalism today and what can be done to ensure that Americans continue to have access to credible, reliable information in the digital age.

This led me back to my thinking about re-aggregating the splintered audiences of America. And for the first time, I discovered the kernel of an idea, which I expressed poorly in the survey because I hadn't thought about it enough.

Here's the idea: What if there was some way, around major issues like health care, climate change, the war in Afghanistan, the deficit, that news organizations -- new and traditional, large and small, national and local -- could form voluntary, shifting consortia that fostered simultaneous, parallel coverage focused on a shared set of basic facts and central questions? In other words, rather than The New York Times holding one conversation on one issue and ABC News holding another conversation on another issue and The Daily Beast talking about something else and local media ignoring it altogether, a vast coalition of newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers, tweeters, etc., could agree on what to talk about, set basic parameters and hold similar discussions, in their own styles, at the same time.

That way, instead of everybody in the country having their attention pulled in different directions depending on their primary news source and therefore having nothing in common to talk about, the majority of people who were remotely tuned in could be having similar conversations on significant issues and might be able to focus long enough to reach a broader, quicker national consensus -- or at least might have a collective sense of what was going on.

Of course, people on the margins -- those who refuse to believe anything in the "mainstream media" or who simply refuse to get on board with what most rational people can agree are the central facts of an issue -- will remain on the margins. But they might be far less likely to dominate the discussion than in the past, because such a large number of people will have access to good information and be paying attention to it at the same time.

Now, this might or might not be a good idea (or maybe someone's already thought of it -- let me know). It would require a great deal of good reporting, coordination, trust and -- most significantly -- a shared sense of priorities. It could result in one important issue getting too much attention while others languish. But it could also be a way to fill the gap left by the death of the Walter Cronkite model of national conversation -- where a very few people set the agenda and everyone else followed it. Now, agenda-setting power is in more hands, but that power is so diffuse that there is virtually no agenda, so almost nothing gets done.

If we could return the role of agenda-setting to the press, but also make that role exponentially more broad-based and transparent, maybe we could get Americans talking to one another again in constructive ways.

Anyway, it's worth thinking about.


  1. Believe it or not, I believe the media are already implementing your idea.

    Some call it "pack journalism." Whatever you call it, most reporters seem to follow the herd.

    When the NYT runs a story, editors across America still go to local reporters to ask: Can we follow this?

    When one cable news outlet breaks a story, it's usually not long before the others follow suit.

  2. Mr. TWallack:

    Thanks for commenting on my blog. I certainly won't try to deny the existence of pack journalism, especially at the level of the big dailies where you play. But that's not what I'm suggesting here. Packs tend to chase after red meat -- "death panels," tea parties, scandals and gotchas -- not thoughtful, meaningful reporting. You won't hear an editor in Albuquerque send a reporter to follow a NYT piece predicting mid-century demographic shifts as a result of climate chage, her competitive juices flowing as she calls for enlightening readers on how decisions we make now can affect our children 50 years from now.

    Pack journalism is arbitrary, ad hoc and seeks the lowest common denominator. What we might want to consider, instead, is "cooperative journalism," in which well-meaning people who roam all corners of nonfiction media -- print, broadcast, digital, niche -- agree on an outline of how to cover big issues the right way. Deciding what NOT to cover, such as distracting, misleading and over-the-top political talking points, would be as important as deciding what TO cover.

  3. By the way, t, did you take the CCJ survey? How did YOU propose sustaining high-quality, widely available journalism in the future?

  4. perry parks10:23 AM

    Perry, as a perry parks myself, I can't help but see some of your writhing.

    The thought of having media cover shared thoughts on a subject is interesting.

    My issue is medical marijuana. The only way to get the mainstream interested was to make a BOLD statement..or in the Miami Herald story.

    I am amazed at the number of Perry Parks' in the country.

    Do you also have to correct people who call you Terry?