Coverage of the Government Shutdown: Did Journalists Fail?

Posted by Kayli Kunkel

The US government shutdown is stealing news headlines and over 800,000 Americans’ paychecks.

Neither the headlines nor the Americans are doing their jobs.

I’ve heard scattered complaints about how little the news media did to prepare the public for the coming shutdown. Friends and classmates have expressed confusion and surprise.

Something this impactful shouldn’t come as a surprise. The shutdown is causing tangible damage to American lives. Today, CNN reported that 19,000 children might be shut out of preschools, including those who receive special disability services. Hundreds of thousands are unable to pay bills, apply for mortgages, or receive important federal services. On a personal note, my boyfriend, a Yellowstone National Park employee, was sent home—20 hours home—after thousands of park visitors faced a forceful exodus and paychecks hit a standstill.

Usually I say the public should pay better attention to news reports. Now, my sympathies lie with the average American for not getting the memo.

Pre-shutdown, news networks mentioned the budget threat as a possibility, but reports were brief and riddled with political lingo. The essence of “government shutdown” evaded the casual viewer, and the outcomes—huge losses in paychecks, thousands out of work, and disappearance of government services—were unexplained. My generation, too young to remember past shutdowns, seems particularly lost.

News outlet Al Jazeera criticized American journalists for picking neutrality over truth. Writer Dan Froomkin says the blame game is an important piece to understanding the shutdown and moving past it. He wrote than an “aversion to taking sides” is misinforming the public.

Truth be told, misinformed citizens turned the shutdown into a social media joke. Comical tweets emerged, like “CTRL + ALT + Government” and “BREAKING: the US government.” Misinformed citizens posted about the “closing” police force, the temporary legalization of weed, and other untruths.

Jimmy Kimmel demonstrated that many Americans don’t understand Obamacare at all. Only recently, when Congressman Sean Duffy was assaulted outside the Capitol, protests formed, and the realities of job loss set in, did the shutdown become “serious” to the public.

Some news outlets have tried laymen’s terminology, like CNN, who gave a noble attempt at explaining the shutdown in 20 questions. But I would argue that most shutdown reports fail to inform and explain, at least in ways that the average citizen—aka, the affected one—can understand.

As a citizen, do you understand the government shutdown?
As a journalist, do you think the news media has failed the public with its coverage?
Do you agree with Al Jazeera writer Dan Froomkin that neutrality isn’t the answer on this issue?

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2 responses to “Coverage of the Government Shutdown: Did Journalists Fail?

  1. Honestly, I can’t say I know the exact cause of the government shutdown. I know that one issue is the debt ceiling that needs to be raised in order to keep our economy somewhat stable. I heard talk of a government shut down before it happened, but did not get a clear picture of why a shutdown was the government’s only option. I do agree with Dan Froomkin. When everyone aims to be neutral, people are not getting the multiple sides of the story they deserve to hear. Therefore, our news becomes a game of no stepping on anyone’s toes and taking the easy way out.

    • Olivia, I agree that Dan Froomkin has a point about neutrality. Professors fed us lectures on staying neutral as a journalist since day one in the J-school. I remember getting my essays back scrawled with “Keep your voice out!” But you raise an interesting point that neutrality can be wrong, even lazy, in an issue like the shutdown. In this effort to “not step on toes,” like you said, the public is misinformed. You’re definitely not alone in not fully understanding the causes of the shutdown.

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