Originally coined by Timothy Crouse in his book The Boys on the Bus, the term “pack journalism” can often evoke connotations of limited journalistic initiative, collective news writing and a lack of diversity in the news media narrative. In their article, Jonathan Matusitz and Gerald-Mark Breen even go so far as to call it “not only erroneous and inefficient, but also unethical.” They also charge pack journalism as leading to “short-term and long-term harm to readers and viewers, an amplified violation of privacy, a loss of independence in news reporting, the threat of lost credibility in the content of news reported by packs, and economic inefficiencies.”
Pack journalism occurs when a number of reporters from a range of news media outlets covering the same event knowingly produce the same story, using similar if not the same sources and grabbing the same bite of newsworthy content to lead their stories. As Crouse pointed out, this type of collective journalism used to occur frequently when journalists covered presidential campaigns; a large group of reporters would be sent out to follow the candidate on the campaign trail and would all report back to their respective media outlets with the same story. Matusitz and Breen argue that “reporters were talking about what the story was; they were agreeing what the essence was before it even happened. After the event, they collaborated on the collective lead.”
Furthermore, not only were journalists collectively pursuing coverage of the exact same story, but they were collectively following the lead of prominent media organizations or wire service agencies in deciding what element of a story was deemed newsworthy. As Nicole Joseph wrote in her article for Northwestern University, “journalists pay particular attention to their colleagues at ‘elite organizations’ such as the New York Times and the Washington Post.” She goes on to say that “high-status outlets like the New York Times even have the ability to set the news agenda across media types, for example, in television news coverage.” Journalists all want to find the scoop over any of their colleagues, but on the other hand, they also don’t want to present information so far outside the norm of what other media outlets are reporting that the credibility of their own coverage is called into question.
And while some may argue that pack journalism is a thing of the past (after all, Crouse’s Boys on the Bus was written to reflect the nature of coverage on the Nixon and McGovern campaigns in 1972), it is a phenomenon very much still in existence, and still a threat to good, balanced journalism. In another article written by Matusitz and Breen, they point to coverage of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia as a more recent example in which journalists collectively presented news with “sensational, aggrandized, and cataclysmic language,” that “illuminate one important way in which pack journalism can produce significantly negative effects. These effects include the inducement of global hysteria.” In doing so, journalists produce stories that will sell based on their perceived news values, rather than providing a range and depth of perspectives that go beyond the tragedy itself to portray for example a more detailed look at the victims, which would give the audience a more comprehensive picture of the event.
I would argue that pack journalism itself is a variety of agenda setting by the news media, and demonstrates Tim Cook’s argument in his book Governing with the News that journalists have internalized what production values translate into a newsworthy story, and therefore write stories that fulfill those news values. In doing so, they select what news actually becomes the news that their audiences read about, which sets the public information agenda. In their article for the compilation An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research, Maxwell McCombs and Tamara Bell argue that “most of our world is a second-hand reality created by news organizations,” and that “there is no guarantee that this reality accurately depicts our world.” And to a significant extent, this is the media condition that pack journalism perpetuates. Not only does pack journalism sacrifice a range of perspectives in favor of news values that will sell, but it creates a limited picture of the world for the audience.
By acting in this agenda setting role of pack journalism, journalists essentially limit the flow of thought into the marketplace of ideas and narrow the public discussion to a singular newsworthy story angle. In the long run, Matusitz and Breen argue that pack journalism could lead to the “underrepresentation of minority parties as a result of the media’s primary focus on prominent figures over minority groups or individuals,” and it “render[s] news coverage one-dimensional and one-sided.” Looking at negative impacts such as these, where can journalists draw the line between catering to the news media business model (which is essentially what pack journalism does in providing coverage in a way that emphasizes the same newsworthiness across outlets to sell content) and pursuing journalistic autonomy to produce a range of perspectives and more complete news coverage? Can reporters today even afford to pursue journalistic autonomy?
I would argue that in this era of new media platforms, not only is pack journalism easier than ever to perpetuate, but it has also become a necessity that reporters break away from the pack in order to survive and in order for their respective publications to survive. With regard to the first part of my argument, think about Twitter, a resource in the toolkit of almost every reporter today. When covering a story or event, reporters can tweet throughout the course of the event, alerting other journalists to what they are deeming newsworthy and creating information trends that can fuel the pack journalism mentality. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Brendan Nyhan writes “media [converge] on that narrative as reporters digested interpretations of the event that were being offered to them in real time and immediately after the fact – a process that can happen more seamlessly than ever in the Twitter era.”
As for the second part of my argument, publications can no longer rely on simply presenting the news to earn them an audience and keep their media outlet afloat financially. Given the age of digital media, publications increasingly have to find a niche or present information that no other organization has in order to attract a readership. Thus, it is more to their benefit to break from the herd and provide a unique perspective rather than the same coverage of the same story. Nyhan writes that “it’s worth noting that the economic incentives that supported pack journalism are disappearing. Media outlets need to differentiate themselves in an increasingly crowded marketplace.”
Therefore, there is hope yet that today’s technologies will alter yesterday’s practices. As Joseph writes, “the rise of citizen-journalism, however, has challenged the notion that journalists conform to the press agenda of their colleagues with the highest status,” and that the “introduction of a new type of information producer to the pack challenges traditional notions of high and low status group members in the journalistic hierarchy.” Perhaps this notion of the “un-professional” journalist will serve to break the mold of news coverage and reinvigorate a robust, multi-dimensional public debate.
Cook, T. (1998). Governing with the news: The news media as a political institution. (2nd ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press