How the media are setting the 2020 agenda: Chasing daily controversies, burying policy

By Aleszu Bajak, Dan Kennedy and John Wihbey

It’s a paradox of examining political coverage. Are news media just reporting what the political candidates are talking about? Or does political journalism really set the agenda by selecting stories around specific news items, scandals and issues du jour?

Our topic analysis of ~10,000 news articles on the 2020 Democratic candidates, published between March and October in an ideological diverse range of 28 news outlets, reveals that political coverage, at least this cycle, tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items, from accusations of Joe Biden’s inappropriate behavior towards women to President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine.

Read the rest at Storybench, a media innovation vertical published by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. And talk about this post on Facebook.

7 stories you might have missed while the media went wild over impeachement

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Impeachment has swallowed the news whole. In a world beset by climate change, right-wing populism, and rising tides of immigration, the overwhelming issue in the U.S. media is the burgeoning Ukraine scandal and whether it will take down President Trump.

As compelling as the impeachment story is, there’s a danger that these other issues will be overlooked. In the long run, the fate of our planet is considerably more important than the fate of our president.

Last week I asked my Northeastern University journalism students to identify an undercovered story and to explain their choice. Some of what they told me was predictable; some of it was surprising. Greta Thunberg’s climate activism? Of course. Gender-neutral Barbie dolls? Who knew? (And how cool is that?)

What follows is a list of seven major stories my students thought should have gotten more attention. The rankings are mine, but the ideas are all theirs.

7. Climate change. The question of whether the world will still be inhabitable decades from now comes in last on my list simply because it did get quite a bit of coverage last week. A major United Nations report and Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate Action Summit were both major news events. But even though those topics weren’t exactly undercovered, climate change might have been — and probably should have been — the top story of the week.

“The warming climate is killing coral reefs, supercharging monster storms, and fueling deadly marine heat waves and record losses of sea ice” is how The Washington Post summarized the new report.

By week’s end, The Boston Globe published a massive multimedia feature on how climate change is affecting Cape Cod. There seems to be little doubt that global warming has emerged as a major issue for the media. Even so, it should be treated as by far the biggest story of our time — and last week’s developments should have received more attention than they did.

6. The vaping crisis. As with climate change, there was no shortage of stories about the vaping crisis, which has led to unexplained illnesses and deaths across the country. President Trump is seeking to ban most types of flavored e-cigarettes. In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has imposed a four-month moratorium.

As with climate change, the vaping crisis would rank higher on our undercovered list except that it has in fact received a great deal of coverage. But has it been enough? Given how prevalent vaping has become, especially among young people, the story arguably deserves even more attention than it has received.

5. Gender-neutral Barbie. The toymaker Mattel announced last week that it would introduce a new set of gender-neutral dolls for, as The New York Times put it, “boys, girls and children in between.” The new line, called Creatable World, comes in different skin tones and hair styles and may be dressed any way a child likes.

“Toys are a reflection of culture and as the world continues to celebrate the positive impact of inclusivity, we felt it was time to create a doll line free of labels,” said Kim Culmone, a Mattel senior vice president, in a statement on the company’s website. “Through research, we heard that kids don’t want their toys dictated by gender norms. This line allows all kids to express themselves freely which is why it resonates so strongly with them.”

In a culture in which it’s still difficult, even dangerous, to be transgender (as we will see below), Mattel has taken a major leap forward toward celebrating all kids.

4. Unrest in Venezuela. Several months ago, the rising opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was a daily news story. Then again, at that time the U.S. government was paying a great deal of attention to the unrest, with members of the Trump administration even suggesting that the United States might intervene militarily.

The White House has lost interest, and thus so, too, have the media. But the standoff between the authoritarian Maduro government and the opposition has not been resolved. As recently as late last week, the BBC reported that the U.N. Human Rights Council would investigate reports of violations, “including executions, disappearances and torture.”

It is often said that the U.S. press doesn’t cover the world; rather, it covers the United States in the world. The situation in Venezuela is every bit as disturbing as when the White House was interested in it. The media should cover it accordingly.

3. The right to be forgotten. The Court of Justice of the European Union last week issued a ruling that will have a significant, positive impact on free speech in the United States: the court ruled that European laws mandating the “right to be forgotten” could not be enforced outside the E.U.

The right to be forgotten requires Google and other search engines to delete information about certain people “when their privacy rights outweigh the public’s interest in having continued access to the information,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a U.S.-based free-speech organization. The court ruled that such laws cannot be enforced outside the E.U., which means that search results in the U.S. and elsewhere will remain intact.

“The ability of one nation to require a search engine to delist results globally would prevent users around the world from accessing information they have a legal right to receive under their own country’s laws,” said the EFF in a statement hailing the ruling. “That would allow the most speech-restrictive laws to be applied globally.” Thankfully, the European court decided otherwise.

2. Deal struck on asylum-seekers. According to the Associated Press, five European countries — France, Germany, Italy, Malta and Finland — agreed to allow migrants fleeing Libya to disembark from the ships that had rescued them. The deal, under which the migrants will be spread across the five countries, expires Oct. 8. But officials from the five countries hope other E.U. members will soon join them.

“Migrants aboard the Ocean Viking jumped in joy and relief after hearing that they will be allowed to disembark at the port of Messina, Sicily, a week after rescue,” the AP reported. “The 182 men, women, and children, including a newborn, aboard the humanitarian ship run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders were expected to arrive by Tuesday [Sept. 24].”

With massive waves of immigration from poorer to richer countries emerging as one of the defining narratives of our era, the five-nation agreement represented a rare, if temporary, piece of good news.

1. An “epidemic” of transgender killings. The New York Times last Friday published a chilling report: at least 18 transgender people, most of them women of color, have been killed in the United States since the start of 2019. The American Medical Association is referring to the killings as an “epidemic.”

Although the Times deserves credit for shining a spotlight on the violence, it should be noted that the story appeared on page 11 of the print edition — the very definition of undercovered. Nor have other news organizations given the story the attention it deserves.

The killings come at a moment when transgender people are more visible and mainstream than ever before. Unfortunately, that may be part of the problem, with LGBTQ activists saying that the killings could be in reaction to that trend. “The increased visibility is a signal for them that they need to double down in fighting back,” Beverly Tillery, executive director of the Anti-Violence Project in New York, told the Times. “We’re definitely seeing what we would call a backlash.”

The seven stories I’ve listed here are admittedly somewhat random. There were more chosen by my students that I could have picked from — an investigation by U.S. officials that found Syria used chemical weapons last May; the ongoing, nearly forgotten recovery from Hurricane Dorian; unresolved political stalemates in Britain and Israelforest fires in Indonesia, perhaps related to climate change; EEE, a serious mosquito-borne illness that has broken out in parts of New England; and the news (OK, not exactly new) that U.S. cities are losing 36 million trees each year.

No doubt you could come up with your own list. The point is that it’s a big world out there. The media aren’t exactly ignoring these stories; everything on my list received some mainstream coverage. These days, though, you have to chop through the impeachment weeds to see what’s underneath. Let’s start chopping.

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The Lowell Sun sports editor’s farewell column was taken down. Here’s every word of it.

Note: The hedge fund-owned newspaper chain MediaNews Group recently laid off several people at its Massachusetts papers, including sports editor Dennis Whitton of The Sun in Lowell. Whitton posted a farewell column on The Sun’s website and linked to it on Twitter, but when I tried to read it, it was gone — taken down (by management), he said in a tweet. (The column did appear in print.) An anonymous person with access to the CMS forwarded it to me, and I was able to verify that it was authentic. Here is Whitton’s farewell:

40 years of memories

By Dennis Whitton

“And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun…”

— Pink Floyd, “Time”

LOWELL — It’s more like 40 years have got behind me. Where have they gone? What do I have to show for them? Can I get some of them back?

After 35 years as The Sun’s sports boss and another 5-6 behind that as a reporter, co-op, cub and otherwise, your intrepid correspondent will be leaving the building this afternoon for the final time.

Corporate cost-cutting is the culprit. Apparently I was making too much money to suit the suits, even with years of frozen wages. I didn’t realize I was making so much. I would have spent more.

Our assistant sports boss, Barry Scanlon, is in the same liferaft. That’s a real head-scratcher because Barry was the staff workhorse and he loved what he did for the most part and did it extremely well. Like me, he took maybe two sick days in 22 years. But he, too, was unknowingly making too much money.

My super-supportive wife Jan says I should use the term “let go” when talking about this stuff because it sounds better than “laid off.”

It probably also sounds better than fired, downsized, axed, canned, dumped, released and forced out, too. But any way you cut it, we’re down to the final countdown in a job I’ve held since before that ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs.

If I sound bitter you’re reading me wrong. With all the technology now in play it’s a young person’s game. I’ve probably overstayed my “sell by” date and now I’m looking forward to the next chapter. Of the book I’m reading. Sitting on the beach.

At least the ax wasn’t performance-related. I know that because the suits in question have no idea what Barry and I did or how we did it. In the end we were numbers on a spreadsheet. There is one major downside to the affair: According to the exit agreement, my discounted employee newspaper subscription will be rolled over to the regular customer rate at the end of the month. Damn.

Everybody knows newspapers are yesterday’s news, useful mainly to parents making scrapbooks for their high school heroes. In the Internet age there isn’t much we can tell you in the rag that you couldn’t have found out 12 hours ago. Advertisers know this, which is why newspapers are circling the drain. Which is why we’ve been let go, and a number of other good people before and after us.

Those were the days.

In looking back for this “farewell column” that the aforementioned Jan has pressured me to write, I realize nearly all of my most interesting times in the game came in the previous century. After that I became a cynical curmudgeon.

So in a nutshell, and with apologies for the overuse of the dreaded pronoun “I,” here are some of my memories:

One of my first assignments as a Northeastern (Class of ’80) co-op student in the Sun sports department was the 1978 Beanpot. Of course the Blizzard of ’78 hit and I was stuck wandering Boston for five days. At least I didn’t bail. A true newspaperman.

In October of that same year I was in the overflow “press box” on the left field roof at Fenway Park when Bucky Dent’s home run cleared the fence so close to me I could almost read Bowie Kuhn’s signature on the baseball.

I covered a lot of Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics games in that time period (much of it while still in college) and even went on several Sox road trips when Charlie (not yet Chaz) Scoggins was on vacation. Milwaukee, Baltimore, Cleveland, the Bronx, Arlington, Texas — all the garden spots. I rode the team buses (Luis Tiant was a hoot. Nobody talked to Yaz. The nicest guy was Jack Brohamer) and stayed at the team hotels.

Jack Costello, the editor whose family owned the paper, wasn’t averse to spending money, at least where travel was concerned (lunch was another matter). Now we don’t even go to the Garden because it costs too much to park.

In September of 1979 I was off to Syracuse for a feature story on Ayer’s Joe Morris, who was setting records for the Orange. From there I detoured down to Madison Square Garden where I covered Larry Bird’s first exhibition game with the Celtics. Still have the press pass to prove it.

In 1982, the paper sent me to Kitchener, Ontario, for three days to do a profile of junior hockey superstar Brian Bellows because the Bruins had the first overall pick in the draft. The stories came out OK, but the B’s went and drafted Gord Kluzak instead.

Jack sent me to Augusta National to cover five Masters Tournaments, ending with Tiger’s historic win in 1997. Got to play the course in 1990 and made birdie on the par-3 sixth with a rented Cannon 5-iron to six feet. Been living off that story ever since. Also got to take the ferry over to Long Island for two U.S. Opens at Shinnecock Hills.

Speaking of golf, in 1999 we were double-teaming the Ryder Cup in Brookline until I told Dave Pevear on Saturday night to go ahead and cover the Patriots’ game on Sunday rather than come to the U.S. funeral at TCC. A case of over-managing.

In 1980, I remember covering the horrendous clubhouse fire at Rockingham Park. It was the morning after I hit the last race, with Skip Row paying $10.20 (I kept the program).

Closer to home there was a story on Dave Boutin, a ULowell catcher from Pawtucketville who was dying of cancer. That one has always stuck with me. Dave and his mother Fleurette were a source of inspiration, even for a cynic. Absolute profiles in courage.

In 1987, they sent me to Pasadena, Calif., for Super Bowl XXI to do stories on Ayer’s Joe Morris (again), by now the Giants’ star running back. From there Mr. Costello had me drive down to San Diego to do a piece on Dennis Conner, who had brought the America’s Cup back to the States in historic fashion.

Dennis was not even in the country, but there was some good yachting talk with various officials at the leather-and-mahogany San Diego Yacht Club. Nothing like some good yachting talk on the company’s dime. At least I got to see the actual Cup.

Westford golfer Pat Bradley always made time for me whenever I needed a story. I attended her Hall of Fame induction dinner in Boston in 1991 (still have the commemorative wine glass) — and shockingly ran into her atop Mt. Washington last year after she had hiked up through thick fog at age 67.

The Golden Gloves were my beat through the ’80s and into the ’90s. I covered Micky Ward’s amateur career (and later Ward-Gatti II), saw Mike Tyson destroy a poor local kid named Jimmy Bisson in 42 seconds in 1983, got to know the tireless Arthur Ramalho and his saint of a wife, Rita, and went on five or six National Golden Gloves trips.

The most memorable of those was in Albuquerque, N.M., when Gloves director Norm Lombardi, “chaperone” Jack Baldwin and I hopped on a small plane to Las Vegas one night. I had to call Ramalho’s hotel room to find out what happened to the heavyweight we had fighting in the tournament and cranked out the story from some cheap hotel off the strip where you had to duck under the TV set when you entered the room.

Norm was obsessed with that casino game where you plug in nickels and they fall into the bin and push other nickels over a cliff for a possible 20-cent payout. Obsessed.

From 1983-85 I left to work with another mentor, Frank Dyer, at the Boston Herald. We had a blast, but there was zero chance to write so I went looking and Lowell happened to be in need of a sports editor. At age 28 I took the job.

Which brings me to the old Sun All-Star sports banquets, usually held at the Windsor (now Lenzi’s) in Dracut. By actual count I did three banquets a year for 23 years until they were discontinued in 2008 — corporate cost-cutting was the culprit.

Introducing shy high school kids and reading about their accomplishments to beaming parents for two-plus hours a night was the drill. I dreaded it at the time but looking back it was a true highlight of my career.

We were able to talk with a ton of area coaches and AD’s and athletes and parents, and it no doubt helped our high school coverage, which was always The Sun’s bread and butter.

There were usually guest speakers, too. Tom Glavine was extremely nervous and kept repeating himself. Now he’s as polished as they come. His girlfriend at the time may have been overserved. Reggie Lewis showed up with a severe burn on his right hand.

A popcorn accident in the kitchen, he told us. Wink wink. Nod nod. Jim Calhoun spoke when he was still at NU and not yet the legend he became at UConn. And there were plenty more.

I covered a Marvin Hagler fight one winter night at the Worcester Centrum and got caught again in a raging blizzard. Unwilling to wait in a long line for gas, I negotiated my beloved but totally unreliable MGB roadster back to Lowell on absolute fumes, barely able to see out the windshield. It finally gave up as I pulled into the old Rex parking lot astride the Sun office. Loved that car.

The Rex was where a Lowell cop moonlighting as a snowplow driver hit my car one night and left a note on the windshield. Thus began a long friendship with Jack Dolan.

So in the interest of wrapping this thing up, let me throw out some other names of people who have helped me along the way, made the journey more enjoyable, and in some cases even became friends:

Jack Costello, Frank Dyer, Mickey Sullivan, Jim Moriarty, Gene Manley, Ken Hughes, Kendall Wallace, Meg Buckley, Shawn Smith, Peter Flynn, Paul Daley, Chris Scott, Jim Campanini, Bill Biswanger, the entire group of sports personnel, past and present, who turned the deadlines we faced every single day into child’s play.

Then there is my aunt Joyce Dalton in Wilmington, who faithfully clipped all of my articles from day one, regardless of topic, passed judgment and sent them down the family line through Auntie Moo.

I know there are others whose names will pop into my head as I drive home after writing this. If that’s you, I apologize.

But as the great Blues Traveler song goes: “It won’t mean a thing in a hundred years.”

— 30 —

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How Apple News Plus saddles publishers with the worst of Facebook and Spotify

Apple News Plus presents publishers with both a Facebook problem and a Spotify problem.

Like Facebook, news content would be disaggregated and mashed up with whatever Apple decides to put in front of its subscribers. Like Spotify, subscription fees would be split so many ways that no single publisher could make much money, especially compared to what it theoretically might be able to pull in from its own digital subscription efforts.

I expand on both of those thoughts in this interview with News@Northeastern.

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Jack Driscoll, former Globe editor and distinguished Northeastern alum, dies

Very sad news tonight as The Boston Globe is reporting that one of its former editors, Jack Driscoll, has died. Among other things, Mr. Driscoll was among the most distinguished journalism graduates of Northeastern University — back before we had a formal journalism program.

Mr. Driscoll retired from the Globe in 1993 and had a long, productive retirement at the MIT Media Lab and as a pioneering citizen journalist. Kevin Cullen has the details.

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Three Northeastern students contributed to the Globe’s Valedictorians Project

Last weekend I spent an hour or so with The Boston Globe’s amazing Valedictorians Project, which tracked more than 100 Boston valedictorians from about a dozen years ago to see how they are doing today. Like all great digital presentations, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would prefer the print version. The integration of videos and data, as well as the ability to access short bios of every valedictorian, really make the digital version stand out.

Of course, there’s a lot of important reporting here, too. There is much to contemplate, but what struck me more than anything was the cultural shock that many of these young people experienced when they made the transition from the Boston Public Schools to college. We all need to do better.

I could go on and on, but I’ll close with this: Two of our students in the School of Journalism at Northeastern were among those providing research assistance: Zipporah Osei and Patrick Strohecker. A third Northeastern student, Alexander Lim, is with the newly renamed Khoury College of Computer and Information Sciences. Congratulations to all!

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Do newspapers still matter? A conversation about ‘Moguls’ with WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller

Thanks to Jon Keller for having me on “Keller @ Large” Sunday morning to talk about “The Return of the Moguls.” We’re having a launch party at Northeastern today at 5 p.m. Hope to see you there!

I want you to help me with my reading list for a course on Trump and the media

Donald Trump. Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore.

I’m teaching a course in May and June called The Media in the Age of Trump, and I’m trying to flesh out my reading list. I’ll be asking my students to subscribe to The Washington Post (because it’s free for anyone with an .edu email address), and I have a number of worthwhile readings already chosen. Although I probably won’t assign all of these, I am listing them below.

What else would you recommend? In a perfect world, I would have two or three in-depth, evidence-based pieces arguing that President Trump is getting a raw deal from the press.

Please offer your suggestions at the Facebook version of this post. Or send an email to me at dan dot kennedy at northeastern dot edu.

WGBH News publishes Northeastern students’ map project on indie coffee shops

My super Northeastern journalism students in Digital Storytelling and Social Media have reviewed and mapped their favorite independent coffee shops for WGBH News. You can find it here. A great job by everyone.

Northeastern students’ multimedia projects are published by WGBH News

Flooding at Long Wharf during the King Tides in mid-November gave Bostonians a preview of climate change. Photo by Gwendolyn Schanker; filter by BeFunky.
Flooding at Long Wharf during the King Tides in mid-November gave Bostonians a preview of climate change. Photo by Gwendolyn Schanker; filter by BeFunky.

WGBH News, the online arm of Boston’s largest public media organization, published nine multimedia projects from my Digital Storytelling and Social Media class this past fall. From oyster farming in Wellfleet to activism aimed at assisting immigrants in Greater Boston, Northeastern journalism students hit the streets and back roads to report, write stories, take photos, and shoot and edit videos.

Here is what you will find by our students at WGBHNews.org:

  • Janine Eduljee: “Despite Long Lines, Early Voting Proved To Be A Hit In Massachusetts”
  • Timothy Foley: “Poetic Justice: How Boston Pulse Is Helping Students Find Their Voice”
  • Mayeesha Galiba: “Mass. Coalition Fights To Promote The Rights Of Immigrants And Refugees”
  • Elise Harmon: “New England Activists Rally For Victims Of Violence In Syria”
  • Christie Macomber: “Standing Up For Standing Rock: The Harsh Realities Of Environmental Racism”
  • Alexandra Malloy: “In Wellfleet, An Oyster Farmer’s Life Is Dictated By The Tides”
  • Gwendolyn Schanker: “Seeing Is Believing: Using Multimedia To Tell The Climate Change Story”
  • Rowan Walrath: “Fossil-Fuel Divestment Campaigns Hit Boston’s College Campuses”
  • Elle Williams: “Standing Up For Black Lives: How Asian Americans Are Showing Their Solidarity”

Many thanks to Peter Kadzis, who edits the WGBH News site, as well as to the web folks who made it happen: Brendan Lynch, Paris Alston, and Joshua Eaton.