Syndicate content

The Burglar Alarm Standard of News

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

In my last post, I mentioned some of the problems that public opinion as a political force can pose when citizens aren't sufficiently informed or just don't care about political issues. I mentioned Walter Lippmann's suggestion to relieve citizens of their participation in political decision making and leave it all up to experts. Another suggestion comes from political scientist John Zaller, who calls for a "burglar alarm journalism." The principle is related to Lippmann's: Zaller proposes to leave the evaluation of political issues to, of all things, the media.

In his essay "A New Standard of News Quality: Burglar Alarms for the Monitorial Citizen" (2003), Zaller proposes a seemingly citizen friendly version of Lippmann’s government by experts. He suggests leaving the people in peace to do what they really want - which is, as he quotes another scholar, Michael Schudson, "appreciating a sunset, humming a tune, or listening to the quiet breathing of a sleeping child." Zaller's burglar alarm standard of news coverage suggests: "Journalists should routinely seek to cover non-emergency but important issues by means of coverage that is intensely focused, dramatic, and entertaining and that affords the parties and responsible interest groups, especially political parties, ample opportunity for expression of opposing views. ... the idea is to call attention to matters requiring urgent attention, and to do so in excited and noisy tones. ... This standard would motivate news that would catch the attention of the Monitorial Citizen, providing subsidized information that would facilitate opinion formation and making politics engaging rather than boring." In short: citizens should in general keep their hands off politics while the media chooses what is important, and then reports it as noisily and colorfully as possible. Unless Zaller’s account is a clever provocation to re-think the media system, it is doubtful whether burglar alarm journalism would empower the people, it might rather take power away from them.

Zaller proposes a news standard that does not demand objective and comprehensive coverage of public affairs. Because this is near impossible and most citizens do not care anyway, he suggests that the media work like a burglar alarm, alerting people only when something is going wrong, and then doing so in the most dramatic and entertaining manner possible. In his reasoning, the attempt of the media to cover stories that might be unexciting for a large part of the population is driving people away from consuming the news. Therefore, a spotlight function of the media on only selected news items should furnish citizens with at least the minimal requirements to cast their vote on Election Day.

Zaller works with two assumptions: that people are not interested in political information per se, and that the media as well as the political system can be trusted to do the right thing. Consider the last point: Zaller’s suggestion could only work if the news media were independent from market mechanisms (which do not primarily cater to citizen's best interests) as well as the political system, which itself would have to be independent from the media. The burglar alarm standard reminds of Lippmann’s idea of putting experts in charge of political affairs and having the press explain to the public only what they would understand. Zaller proposes a similar idea with politicians and interest groups taking care of politics, telling the press what is newsworthy, and having delivered what is newsworthy to citizens in small bites that they can easily digest while sitting on a cliff watching a sundown and humming a tune.

To make sure the burglar alarm rings always when it ought to and only when it ought to, news coverage has to be much more comprehensive than what Zaller suggests. With the news media covering the daily business of politics even when it is not exciting it is more likely that the alarm goes off at the right time than when the news media are either struggling to guess what might be important or waiting until activists tells them what is important. With extensive news coverage, citizens are very well able to ring the alarm themselves, everyone with regard to the issues that interest or concern him or her. It does not matter that not all citizens are always interested in all current affairs – as long as issue publics (groups of people that are concerned by specific political issues, this is an idea introduced by John Dewey keep on watching out, citizens’ interests are probably better served than when news coverage is extremely selective.

Maybe Zaller is indeed a very clever provocateur. The idea that it is fruitless to complain about the insufficient functioning of the press while not making any alternative suggestions is certainly one the reader should take away from Zaller’s article. But it seems dubious to believe that letting the media go down their current path will solve democracy’s problems. I think we should ring the burglar alarm ourselves, thank you very much.


Photo credit: Flickr user debsilver


We have already been pushed to the limit by privatized media bending to the will of the market mechanism. Alarmist, sensationalist, reporting abound; all the while true news, sometimes all-the-more frightening by it's truthfulness, is pushed into the fringes. Not a vote for state-run media (per-se), just a poor man's vote for the increased state funding for public media and arts. I say sound the burglar alarm as a death knell for journalism.

Add new comment