Home > Blogging, Citizen Journalism, Mass Media > A Case Study in the Declining Editorial Filter of the Mainstream Media

A Case Study in the Declining Editorial Filter of the Mainstream Media

People fond of a more traditional, fundamentalist definition of journalism are frequently critical of the idea of citizen journalism.  The criticism usually centers on the lack of editorial oversight in the content that is produced.  The “news,” they argue, is better and we should all bemoan the rise of citizen journalism and citizen reporting because there’s “no oversight” and that means more misinformation and a more poorly-informed public.

I’m an advocate for citizen journalism.  I think it can be every bit as good as traditional journalism if the right conditions are present.  I would also argue that the public can retroactively apply an editorial filter of its own to proof and vet content.  It’s just a matter of flipping the timing of the model.

I would also argue that the traditional news media editorial filter only works when profit (and thusly expedience) is not the primary goal of journalism.  Unfortunately the mainstream news media is wholly owned by corporations that demand only increasing profitability – to hell with quality of content.

That greed is why excellent veteran reporters are losing their jobs to inexperienced young replacements.  It’s why newspapers have shrunk in size (there isn’t less news – there’s just less advertising content so the “news hole” is smaller).

Here’s a great example of how the editorial filter is no longer what it used to be (there are many more – and the declining trust of the public in the news media also attests to the problem).

Bad Math Gets Legs: A Case Study

1) A reporter from the Detroit Free Press contacted GRCC  (ie me) for enrollment numbers going back three years.  They were furnished.  From that, the reporter incorrectly reported the college experienced an 18 percent decline in enrollment, when the ACTUAL number was 1.8 percent.  The total numbers printed year to year were correct, but the decimal place was incorrectly moved to the right.

Detroit Free Press Incorrect Community College Graphic Table

That sensational number (based on some shoddy arithmetic) became a feature point of the story and helped sell the narrative the reporter was actually looking to sell (ie “community college enrollment is plummeting! – go to DefCon 3!”).

2) The original story runs with the erroneous figure in the Detroit Free Press:

Community colleges taking hits in Michigan
BY DAVID JESSE | DETROIT FREE PRESS EDUCATION WRITER | 1:45 AM, Sep. 30, 2011

“Fewer students are enrolling and others are taking lighter class loads at Michigan’s community colleges, the result of federal worker retraining money drying up and health care reform that expanded a student exception to insurance rules. […] Some colleges have seen dramatic drops, such as Grand Rapids with an 18% decline in students and Lansing with an 8% decline in credit hours. Others have seen enrollment decline only slightly or level off.” (More)

3) The story with the bogus figure then gets picked up by the Associated Press and inflicted on the rest of the country:

Michigan’s community colleges see fewer students
By: The Associated Press | 09/30/11 7:32 AM | The Associated Press

Michigan’s community colleges are seeing lower enrollment this fall versus a year ago and some students also are taking lighter class loads. […] Macomb, however, saw a 5 percent drop in credit hours this fall and its enrollment dropped by about 2 percent. Some colleges have seen steeper drops, such as Grand Rapids with an 18 percent decline in students and Lansing with an 8 percent decline in credit hours.  (More)

4) …and so on…

Mich. Community Colleges See Fewer Students
September 30, 2011 8:59 AM | CBS Local

DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – Times are hard these days for many Michigan community colleges. As WWJ’s Rob Sanford reports, enrollment figures are going down. […] Metro Detroit community colleges have been largely unaffected, but Grand Rapids Community College has seen a credit hour drop of 18 percent and Lansing Community College had an eight percent drop.  (More)

5) …and so on:

Michigan’s community colleges see fewer students
Posted: Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 2:35 p.m. | AnnArbor.com

Michigan’s community colleges are seeing lower enrollment this fall versus a year ago and some students also are taking lighter class loads. […] Macomb, however, saw a 5 percent drop in credit hours this fall and its enrollment dropped by about 2 percent. Some colleges have seen steeper drops, such as Grand Rapids with an 18 percent decline in students and Lansing with an 8 percent decline in credit hours. (More)

6) All told, the story ran on dozens if not hundreds of news sites from the Chicago Tribune to the Toledo Blade to USA Today.

Not only has the original story not been corrected – but even if it were, the errors would remain in the hundreds of articles that regurgitated the Associated Press copy (depressing given that filling papers up with lightly-edited AP stories has become common across the country as a cost-saving measure).

Whenever someone insists that blogs/citizen journalism/social media is bad and traditional news is good because of editorial oversight – punch them in the face.

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