Yes, the media are the ones engaging in these practices. But the reason that they’re doing so is because we – the public – are gawking at the public displays of pain. Our collective fascination with tragedy means that we encourage media practices that rub salt into people’s wounds, all for the most salacious story. And worse, our social media practices mean that the media creators are tracking the kinds of stories that are forwarded. And my hunch is that people are forwarding precisely those salacious stories, even if to critique the practices (such as the interviews of children).
— danah boyd, “Dear Media, Back The F*** Off Newtown”
Journalists in Britain have traditionally justified shady practices by arguing that they are in “the public interest.” Asked by an inquiry lawyer how he would define that, Mr. McMullan said that the public interest is what the public is interested in.
“British Inquiry Is Told Hacking Is Worthy Tool,” New York Times, 30 Nov 2011 (emphasis mine)
In today’s Salon, Jay Rosen provides a thorough and excellent analysis of "Why campaign coverage sucks." Factors include the herd mentality of otherwise-intelligent journalists and the need to fill pages and airtime while waiting for the voters to make the actual decisions.
He also makes a point about what journalists could — and should — be doing instead:
Journalists ought to be bringing new knowledge into the system, as Charlie Savage and the Boston Globe did in December. They gave the presidential candidates a detailed questionnaire on the limits of executive branch power and nine candidates responded. This is a major issue that any candidate for president should have to address, given the massive build-up of presidential power engineered by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. We desperately need to know what the contenders for the presidency intend to do — continue the build-up or roll it back? — but we won’t know unless the issue is injected into the campaign.
It used to be, for example, that TV coverage of political campaigns was poor because the time available was so limited — only a few minutes in each newscast. Now, with round-the-clock programming and an endless army of talking heads providing opinions, coverage is worse than ever, focusing on opinions about how the race can and "will" be won instead of what the candidates stand for.