Distinguished Donahue Scholar Addresses Misinformation in the Mainstream Press

Distinguished Donahue Scholar Addresses Misinformation in the Mainstream Press

October 08, 2013

Where do you get your news? Does it matter? Well, if you want to understand the actual facts around current issues -- from the government shutdown to global warming -- then the answer is "yes," according to media and government expert and this year's Donahue Distinguished Scholar Thomas Patterson.

Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Kennedy School at Harvard, told the Lasell community that the production of news over the last several decades has made the public "dumber" through a combination of multiple choices for information, multiple ways of receiving information and a lack of subject matter experts in journalism outlets to dig into stories.

"We need a better form of journalism in this country that is based on knowledge. Subject matter expertise has never been a job requirement," said Patterson to a full crowd of students, faculty, staff and guests for the annual Donahue lecture.

Patterson was named this year's Distinguished Donahue Scholar by the Donahue Institute for Values in Public Life and gave his lecture in de Witt Hall on October 8.
Patterson provided the audience a timeline of the shift in knowledge around major issues in the news starting with the 1970s -- where the largest percentage of the public was informed on the facts. He explained this was also a time of low choice for Americans around media outlet type and the media environment. During that time there were few TV channels to tune into, no internet, and news was sacred at the dinner hour.

Contrast that to today's environment where news comes from internet bloggers, TV and newspapers report news "lite" and there are more choices for programming at any hour than ever before.

"Now one-third of Americans don't pay attention to news," he said.

Patterson said today's "news" consumers also receive information on demand or graze for the bits of information they want, rather than hear a full story.

This is compounded by choices made by media corporations to lighten the news with celebrity reports or to over-report information that increases ratings. It means a less informed public, Patterson explained.

The solution, according to Patterson, is to move subject matter experts into journalism roles so that the information presented to the public is more complete and far-reaching.

Patterson, is the author of a new book, Informing the News, and has authored other books including The Vanishing Voter and Out of Order. His articles about politics and communications issues have been published in several journals including Political Communication and the Journal of Communication.