October 18, 2004

The Debates: Media and Journalism

David Shaw writes in the Los Angeles Times that the “significant rise in John Kerry's fortunes” – political, not financial, which are already stratospheric – after the first debate illustrates “that the news media have done a pretty poor job of campaign coverage.”

While there are plenty of press critics around who would agree with Shaw, his wonderment at the post-debate public perception of Kerry pre-supposes a level news media playing field from which newspapers, television, radio and the Internet each distribute news and opinion that is weighed with equal gravity by the electoral audience.

This is not the case. Kerry’s positives got a boost after Debate 1 because:

 He got 90 minutes (in light-controlled intervals) to make his cause to a huge audience.
 Bush sniveled and scowled through his part of it.
 Television is the most powerful tool for public persuasion in the country.

I believe news coverage, i.e., journalism, is essential to a democracy. I also believe much political coverage is mundane and formulaic at best, and reactionary and repetitive at worst. Shaw is correct: we can do better. But I don’t believe news reports are any longer the primary basis for public opinion – and to believe that is to foolishly cling to the notion that “news media” and “journalism” are still synonymous concepts. [ Read: News Media vs. Journalism ]

Michael Moore, Swift Boat Vets for Truth, O’Reilly, Matthews, Instapundit, John Stewart – all influence voters as much if not more than daily journalism, even if only to drive the already decided further into their respective corners.

Newspapers – the symbols of traditional journalism – played a minor role in public perception of the first Bush-Kerry debate. A Pew study found that more than 75 percent of people surveyed named television as the primary source of debate news (not that surprising, given that it was a televised event). More than half of this same group of people interpreted the news coverage as focusing on personal qualities, twice the number that perceived issues as central to the coverage.

What does that mean? It means these viewers – not readers – formed their impression of the candidates more on what they saw of the Bush and Kerry than what they heard the candidates say. Personality over issues. Kerry behaved better in that debate and his numbers rose.

From the perspective of the political candidates, journalism is an irritating, but increasingly irrelevant necessity that they must endure during the election process. When it can be avoided, it is. Arnold Schwarzenegger set the standard for avoidance of traditional media in his race for California governor. He announced his candidacy on Leno, used Oprah as a platform and defied the non-endorsement of all the state’s major newspapers to win election.

Shaw is correct in this sense: We need better political journalism, including more truth-telling (see this Howard Kurtz column on that subject). But if good journalism is going have any meaning in forming public opinion, and countering the relentless tide of mendacity that passes for partisan rhetoric these days, the old conventions of journalism need to be discarded.

The truth stories need to be on page 1. Polling should be ignored. Every story needs to presented in tiered formats – bullets for the skimmer, graphics for the visual learner, narrative for the reader. Writers need to be given more leeway, not less, for interpretation, impression and genuine human reporting.

Yes, the political press can do better. But not if it does things the same old way.

Posted by Tim Porter at October 18, 2004 08:47 AM

"Every story needs to presented in tiered formats – bullets for the skimmer, graphics for the visual learner, narrative for the reader."

Nice. Especially if opinion writers would do likewise, with a separate, skeletal section laying out the logical structure of their argument; this would diminish the "cuttlefish squirting out ink" effect, and perhaps someday even put busybusybusy.com out of business.

Posted by: Anna on October 18, 2004 05:49 PM
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