Thursday, June 15, 2006

CIRM News Coverage: Inertia, Limits and Business-as-Usual

The routine occurred yesterday, and California newspapers were on it like a dog on a bone.

California newspapers consumed many inches of valuable news space for two pedestrian legal events while at the same time largely ignoring more far-reaching and significant news concerning the California stem cell agency.

The routine matter involves litigation against the agency, and the coverage illustrates nicely how the media works or doesn't work.

Here are the specifics. The losers in the lawsuit against CIRM filed their expected appeal. The state then filed its expected move to expedite proceedings. Nothing changed. There were no surprises. It would have been real news if neither event occurred.

So why was the predictable legal action covered while California newspapers have largely ignored more important developments at the agency, including its unprecedented $1 million gala fundraising effort and what also appears to the unprecedented case of a top state agency executive using his own nonprofit advocacy group to lobby the legislature? This is not an idle musing on our part. Others are wondering, including some members of the CIRM's Oversight Committee.

The answers range from inertia to business-as-usual to the internal structure of newsrooms.

The first difficulty newspapers face in covering the stem cell agency is where it fits. Newsrooms are generally organized along lines that have changed little for decades. Coverage responsibilities are broken into turf areas. Generally politics and state government are covered by the Capitol bureaus. Business by the business news departments. Science by a reporter working on the city or state/national desk. When a business reporter branches out into a story involving a state agency, woe to him or her unless all the appropriate editors have been consulted in advance. Otherwise turf hackles will rise.

CIRM is a cross-over story. It has powerful elements involving politics, government, business, science, health, not to mention religion and ethics(that is a often city-side story). It does not fit neatly into the traditional news definitions. Resolving the differences and deciding on a consistent approach to coverage requires thought and work from editors who are hard-pressed by their daily deadline chores. So decisions are put off. It is simply easier to muddle along in the same old way, which, we should add, is one of the reasons why newspapers have lost significant readership over the last few decades.

CIRM is novel, which should make it a "good" story. However, novelty can again pose barriers. It is simple to cover an election, relatively speaking. It is has been done hundreds of thousands of times. Most of the questions about the nature of the coverage have been asked and answered, perhaps not as well as some would like, but to the satisfaction of many in the news industry. But then comes a state government story (or is it a state government story?) about bigtime fundraising by a state agency. Is it really a historical first? Is it illegal? Is it wrong? Who says so? (After all, reporters cannot make assertions on their own; they must quote an authority.) Editors want black and white answers. There is a low tolerance for ambiguity in the news business. Meantime, the editor tells the reporter, you are already late on that weekend piece I asked you to do. Let's talk later about this other story, if it is a really a story.

State agencies, such as CIRM, additionally have traditionally been given short shrift by Capitol bureaus, which prefer the public arena of the legislature and the high profile of the governor. It is rare to find a state agency that is covered consistently and thoroughly.

In recent weeks, we can add coverage of the June primary election to the mix. Newspapers, which have been squeezing their staffs hard as profits dwindle, are particularly hard-pressed during major election periods. They require diversion of resources to election matters. Secondary matters are put off, sometimes forgotten.

Coverage of CIRM is not easy. It operates in a public backwater – not in the hallowed halls of the Capitol, where reporters are feed and often pampered informationally. In contrast, important CIRM meetings are scattered around the state, requiring expensive trips by reporters. The issues are gray. The subjects are difficult, complex and unfamiliar for most newsies. (What do you mean, there is a patent thicket?). The stories are boring unless skillfully told.

Newspapers covered Wednesday's CIRM lawsuit developments because they fit easily into the traditional definitions of news. No matter that the filings are of little consequence. They fit what newspapers do and have done and will continue to do.

What does all this mean for coverage of the California stem cell agency? The immediate impact comes from the beginning of the summer vacation period. Editors and reporters who normally handle the CIRM stories may not be around. So expect less attention during the coming dog days. The election will continue to consume news space (more limited overall nowadays for profit reasons) as well as newsroom resources that otherwise might be used to cover CIRM. At the same time, the agency is beginning to be old news. After all it has been around for 18 months, which is sometimes more than a lifetime for a news story. Not to mention that is only one of many subjects most reporters are required to cover. Overall, we can expect stabilized or waning coverage of the agency at least through the fall, short of a major scandal or an example of aggressive, first-rate reporting that would stimulate the competitive juices of other newsies. If a scandal develops, it will generate a feeding frenzy that will will ignore any constructive work that CIRM has done.

All this said, we are not denigrating the efforts of the reporters, or even the editors, who have worked diligently on stem cell coverage. But we all operate in environments that limit and shape what we do. Newspapers are no different.

Here are links to the latest stories about the litigation:
Reporter Jim Downing of The Sacramento Bee, Lee Romney of the Los Angeles Times, Steve Johnson of the San Jose Mercury News, Terri Somers of the San Union-Tribune, Rebecca Vesely of the Oakland Tribune. Here is CIRM's press release. Sphere: Related Content

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