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Political Reporting: What's The Story?
PoliticsNow Classroom, April 20, 1997
It was bad news for the news business.
A February 1997 survey conducted for the respected Pew Research Center found that only 27 percent of those surveyed believed that news organizations "deal fairly with all sides" when covering political and social issues, while 67 percent felt coverage tended to favor one side. For a profession striving for credibility among its public, the result could not have been welcome news. Yet, as disturbing as that finding might be, it did not come as a shock. Twelve years earlier, a similar survey found that only 34 percent regarded press coverage of issues as fair to all sides.
What was surprising was a noticeable drop in the public's view of media accuracy in covering the news. In 1985, 55 percent of those surveyed believed news outlets basically got the facts straight while 34 percent perceived news reporting as inaccurate. The 1997 poll indicated a significant reversal: 56 percent of the sample regarded news reporting as inaccurate while only 37 percent thought reporters got the facts correct.
It is clear that the news business is facing a credibility crisis. And this is nowhere more evident than in the arena of political reporting.
Problems plaguing the political "beat" are particularly important, for there is a great deal at stake. Much of what Americans know about what is happening in government and politics depends on the media. It is clear that what is reported and how it is presented influence public attitudes and priorities. While studies indicate that readers, viewers and listeners exercise some judgment and selective perception in their consumption of political reporting, the selection and framing of politically relevant stories and issues has an undeniable impact.
The issues surrounding political reporting are several fold. Among the concerns is the criticism that political coverage is too focused on what takes place within the Washington "beltway." This problem is aggravated by the tendency for inside-the-beltway stories to highlight personalities rather than policy issues and political games instead of substantive debates. Regional stories dealing with topics that are inherently more significant to citizens are typically ignored or given short shrift. Local coverage stresses crime and scandal instead of politics and policy.
The behavior and professional priorities of the country's political reporters have also been called into question. Some observers have focused on the "feeding frenzy" that characterizes much of today's news reporting, while others have drawn attention to the questionable implications of the "star system" created by panel shows such as The Capital Gang. Still others have raised questions about the role models generated by the star system. Cynicism is pervasive in reporting about politics and politicians - a view initiated in the 1960s and now mirrored in the substance and tone of even the most respected news broadcasts. The desire to become the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein shapes the norms and behavior of almost every young graduate of journalism school.
And then there is the traditional concern over the influence wielded by "the powers that be" in the news business - a concern gaining credence as the ownership of news outlets is ever more concentrated in the hands of a few corporations. Even Rupert Murdoch now complains that powerful actors with connections can control access to news markets.
What are the answers to these problems? Some have touted "civic journalism" as a positive countermeasure to the perceived Washington bias. A renewal of professionalism is advocated by some questioning the deterioration of journalistic norms. Antitrust actions and a more activist FCC have been proposed by others as a means to deal with the threat of concentration of economic power in the news business.
In this Political Exchange we will get the insights of three individuals well positioned to comment on the problems and prospects of political reporting in America: veteran reporter Sara McClendon, National Journal reporter Paul Starobin, and media scholar and critic Ed Diamond.