Why Negative Journalism Is A Good Thing

In recent months and years, the news has become the news.  Donald Trump’s war on the media, which tapped into growing public sentiment against traditional news outlets, has highlighted many of the public’s grievances with the way news is reported.  Pew research indicates that 14% of Americans believe that the media does too much negative reporting, and a much higher proportion (mainly conservatives) think that the media is too biased in its reporting.

While difficult to tell, much of the conservative anger about bias stems from the reporting of negative stories about conservative politicians and their policies.  They see reports on the impact of repealing the ACA, or Trump’s scandals as biased reporting, when in truth, they are legitimate stories that merely portray the negative side of things they like.  Negative reporting is completely legitimate, whether it is exposing negative aspects of Republican policies, Democratic policies, or whatever crazy thing Jill Stein is saying this week.

The point is that there is, with certainly some exceptions, a negative side to every story, every policy proposal, every event, and the public needs to know about them.  CNN rightly reported on the issues of the Obamacare roll out in 2013, multiple outlets have done incredible investigative work on problems with social media, and Shane Bauer of Mother Jones did one of the best articles of 2016 about his experience as a private prison guard for 4 months.

The point is not only that these stories need to be told, but that negative journalism, a form of modern muckraking, can cause real change.  Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” led to the establishment of the FDA.  The publishing of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times, which exposed the true scope of the Vietnam war, helped turn public opinion against the war, and led to its end, and there is no doubt that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate scandal was a primary cause of the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Negative reporting clues the public in on what is happening, and that allows us to make educated decisions.  In many cases we may decide that the benefits of a policy outweigh the costs, but we cannot properly weigh those decisions unless we know the costs.  Take the ACA for example, and forget Fox News’ overwhelmingly negative coverage (in my search I was unable to find a single positive story from Fox about the ACA or even one that took a true “fair and balanced” approach by discussing the benefit of giving more people healthcare).  CNN, The Washington Post, The LA Times, and almost every other news organization ran stories covering both the benefits and the costs of Obamacare.  Many news outlets ran stories about what Obamacare would cost the average family.  And opinion pages were full of both positive views, and negative.  In the case of the ACA, most Americans, according to recent polling, approve, indicating they think the benefits outweigh the costs.

What I am saying is that it is important that we face the criticisms and negative coverage even of policies and people we like.  It is important that even those of us who support universal healthcare are aware of the downsides, the increased costs, the changes in the healthcare system, the overcrowding of hospitals and clinics.  It was important for Bernie Sanders’ supporters to face the negative coverage about the issues with many of his ideas.  The Atlantic, a magazine conservatives only know of as if it were some kind of evil liberal demon, ran a story asking what does Sanders know about policy, citing areas where he was clearly wrong, or where economists disagree with Sanders’ assessment.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Bernie Sanders was wrong, or unrealistic (that’s for another article on another day) but rather that I worry that too many on the left dismissed negative coverage of Sanders, or healthcare, or immigration, in the same way that Trump supporters dismiss any negative story about him.  It is perfectly reasonable and acceptable to be aware of all the negative aspects of a person and still support them (to a point) but you must make sure you know the bad so you can weigh the decision properly.

Most of our readers here would agree that the overwhelmingly negative coverage of Trump is a good thing, but it isn’t good just because it is bad.  It is good because Trump is an overwhelmingly bad person, and he negative coverage is exposing all of the bad things he has done and is doing.  We should hope that journalists continue to expose conservative wrongdoing, but also liberal wrongdoing when it happens.  At the same time, we need to try actively to not ignore negative stories about things we support.  There are objectively bad or negative components of immigration, healthcare, or free trade.  We need to know about them not only to make the decision, but also to plan for ways to eliminate those bad aspects.

So while we tweet about the next Trump scandal we cannot become blind to our own faults and issues.  We need to break our own media bubbles, which these days doesn’t just include the outlets you prefer, but the very stories you decide to read.  Journalists provide a public good, a necessity.  Most good journalism is exposing something bad, and truly great journalism changes the world.  So in this case negativity an do some real good.