Elections coverage 06: the media's impoverished sense of responsibility

[Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting]

Tomorrow's midterm elections are surely among the most closely watched and hotly contested in many years. The media coverage has thoroughly discussed the latest polls and approval ratings, as well as the barrage of negative advertising. But when a "botched" joke receives wall-to-wall coverage, it is a good time to ask whether political reporting is actually delivering citizens the information they need to make informed decisions at the ballot box. To hear some major media figures tell it, performing some of the basic functions of political journalism are not that important.

Appearing on CNN's Reliable Sources (11/5/06), CBS reporter Jim Axelrod explained that reporting valuable information about candidates is not the media's top priority—and voters can get all that stuff someplace else anyway:

In this Internet age there's no shortage of places to go if you want to read position papers or hear what candidate are holding forth about the economy, education, the environment, anything like that. But our job, especially in the last four or five days, is to take everything that's coming in and crystallize it through a filter of what is popping, what seems to be the most--I guess, what you'd call man biting dog, what's out of the ordinary.

Fox News Channel anchor and managing editor Brit Hume explained (Broadcasting & Cable, 11/6/06) why journalists shouldn't evaluate political advertising for accuracy:

I don't like the reporters that try to police them, tell you what's true and what's not. Most political ads are arguably true and arguably false. It you start trying to get into issues of truth and falsity, you end up doing what the candidates do, which is arguing. My view is, let 'em play. The truth is, negative ads work.

ABC political director Mark Halperin, on the other hand, seems to think that fact-checking the candidates and tracking stealth campaign techniques is simply too difficult (Slate, 10/30/06):

The networks don't spend anything like they used to on covering elections, but we still have as many resources as anyone else devoted to trying to hold the candidates and campaigns accountable to the public interest. But it isn't easy. Even with all the modern technology out there, tracking new television ads is merely really, really hard, while tracking radio ads, church fliers, and those robo-calls that come at the very end is nearly impossible. And once you get a hold of the content, figuring out how to truth-squad the item, and then report it in context, is among the toughest tasks in daily journalism.

Judging media coverage of elections is often reduced to asking whether the press was fair to this candidate or that. The better question, though, is whether the press was fair to the American voters.

article originally published at http://www.fair.org.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey