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Media Shortchange Coverage of State Legislatures

A Chronicle/Sentinel synopsis

The founding fathers’ optimism for this nation came from the assumption that conflicts of interest would be revealed to the public by a vigorous free press. Now newspapers are growing weaker. What’s going to take up the slack to make sure the public knows of conflicts of interest at the state level?
Source: USA Today, 10/30/02—According to Philip Meyer, who holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “the federal government has been moving more of its regulatory authority out of Washington and down to the statehouses.” In a story called “Lax media let legislators hide ties,” he points out that this development is not necessarily a bad thing so long as the public knows what’s going on. But chances are the public doesn’t, because there’s little news coverage of what happens in the nation’s statehouses.

While about 1,900 accredited newspaper and wire-service journalists report what’s happening in Congress, Meyer writes, typically only 10 newspaper reporters are covering a state’s legislature.

The Project on the State of the American Newspaper found that the 510 newspaper reporters now assigned to the 50 state capitols represent ''the lowest number we have seen and probably the lowest in at least the last quarter century.''

Yet what happens in statehouses deserves scrutiny. The Center for Public Integrity just published a book, Capitol Offenders: How Private Interests Govern Our States, that details the enormous scope of the conflict-of-interest problems at this level of government. “The people making the laws that regulate such everyday concerns as insurance, health and real estate often have financial stakes in those industries,” Meyer points out. The public can find out about state legislators' private financial interests except if they live in Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Vermont, Wyoming, Maryland or New York, where Meyer reports that financial disclosure laws are weak or non-existent.

Meyer reports that the decline of newspapers is intensifying the problem of unequal distribution of knowledge. Their influence was greatest in the 1920s, when daily papers equaled 130% of the nation's households (in other words, many households read more than one paper). By 2001, newspapers had only 53% household penetration. “Once fiercely independent,” Meyer observes, “newspapers now rely on non-profits for more than research and technical expertise. Charitable foundations subsidize much of the little midcareer training the industry provides for its workers.”

The optimism of such founding fathers as Jefferson and Madison came from the assumption that conflicts of interest would be revealed to the public by a vigorous free press. Now newspapers are growing weaker, and Meyer says “other institutions must fill the vacuum.”

He points to National Public Radio as having picked up the slack at the national level, but queries, “How can we ever replicate that at the level of each of the states? It might require new forms of media still unborn, creating their own traditions, to do the trick. We need to keep an eye on that process and support the good guys.”

See Philip Meyer’s complete article.

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This story was published on November 9, 2002.
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