Can Political Coverage Ever Get Better?

As we begin inching our way toward the next presidential campaign, it may be far too early to begin the idiotic speculation with which coverage at this stage tends to be consumed (Can anyone beat Hillary? Will Ted Cruz be the Tea Party darling? Who'll win the Iowa straw poll? Dear god, who?). But it's never too early to ask whether anything can be done to improve the news coverage through which Americans see campaigns.

Political scientist Hans Noel points to the uneasy relationship between reporters and scholars, even as the latter work hard to improve that coverage:

Every election cycle, journalists and pundits over-react to early polls that are not predictive of presidential nominations. They get excited about nonsense independent and third-party candidates who have no hope of being elected. They think an increasing number of voters are unaligned independents. They downplay and misrepresent the role of the economy and other fundamentals. And it's not that they don't know. They push back against political scientists who try to correct them.

I sort of understand it. As one very smart journalist (who shall remain nameless, as I was on the record for this conversation, but he really wasn't) told me when interviewing me about a campaign-centered story, their professional incentives cut against social science. He said that if they accepted that inside baseball isn't that important, they'd have nothing to write about every day, and no reason to follow the candidates around.

Part of the difficulty political scientists have in getting the truths to which he alludes across is the nature of the conversations they have with reporters. Nine times out of ten, when a reporter calls up a scholar, he isn't looking for an interesting perspective on political developments. He's looking for a quote that he can use in his story, and he wants it quickly. He doesn't have time to have a leisurely, stimulating discussion about what research demonstrates, because he's got a deadline in an hour. As the conversation proceeds, he'll try to steer it to where that quote might be produced, no matter what the scholar wants to talk about.

Some reporters have a better ear for quotes than others; I've been on both sides of that conversation, and on more than one occasion when I was on the scholar side I served up what I thought was a perfect quote—pithy, insightful, not too long—only to find that the reporter decided instead to quote me using some utterly banal baseball metaphor (reporters find metaphors utterly irresistible). A reporters working on a tight deadline isn't going to call up a scholar and say, "Tell me about the interesting research that's out there." And if she can't give him the quote he's looking for, he isn't going to call her back next time. The result is usually a quote from a political scientist that sheds no particular light on the topic.

The good news is that more and more scholars are doing things like blogging to get their ideas out into the non-academic world, and the multiplication of forms of journalism and commentary means that there are more writers, even some affiliated with big media organizations like newspapers, who are interested in what the scholars have to say.

But there's still the practical problem of what journalists confront on a day-to-day basis. In response to Noel, Jonathan Bernstein gives a shot to articulating a better way to cover campaigns. It's worth quoting at length:

Let's say we're talking about general-election campaigns for the presidency, where overcoverage of gaffes and such is probably the most severe. And let's say that reporters stopped believing (or pretending) that day-to-day campaigning has massive electoral effects. What would remain for them?

  • Policy coverage: What would the candidate actually do about public policy if she won? Is it realistic? How would it work?
  • Rhetoric coverage: Related, but not identical, to the first one. What is the candidate actually promising? Not just in terms of "issues," but also about style? How might those promises help or constrain him if he wins?
  • Candidacy coverage: Who does the candidate surround himself with? What does that suggest about how she would act in office?
  • Voters coverage: What are voters taking away from candidate speeches? In-depth voter interviews are no substitute for polling coverage, but are a good compliment to it. What do voters hear when candidates talk about deficits, taxes, jobs and more?
  • Gaffe coverage: Funny, stupid, or just bizarre things that candidates do are interesting, even when they have zero effect on the November vote. Take a page from Hollywood reporting. No one pretends that the various gaffes and foibles of the stars will have any consequences at all, but so what? They're still fun to watch and to read about.

By the way, if that's not enough to justify following the candidates all the time (and I suspect it is), don't forget that there are hundreds of other elections, lots of which are important and exciting, that receive little or no national attention. Just basic descriptive stuff on the best of those campaigns is more than enough to give reporters an excellent reason to stay out of the newsroom.

Bernstein's list is a good one, but with the exception of the gaffes, the main problem may be that none of these things constitute events. Think about it this way: like a restaurant or a web site, campaigns have a front end and a back end. The back end—raising money, doing polls, managing voter lists, administering a large and dynamic organization—is stuff the campaign doesn't want reporters to see. The front end is a series of events they put on, the multiple speeches and appearances the candidate does every day. Covering events is relatively easy for reporters. You go there, you write down what happened, you talk to some voters for their reactions, get a quote from a campaign staffer or two, and boom, you've got your story.

The other kinds of things Jonathan suggests talking about, as valuable as they are, require more work and thought, which is why they're much more likely to be done by people like magazine reporters who have longer lead-times on their stories, and much less likely to be done by the newspaper and TV reporters who are out on the trail and have to do a story every day. Events are easier, and they're always new (we do call it "news," after all), even if today's rally is pretty much exactly like the rally they candidate did yesterday and last week and last month.

Also (and I'm sure Jonathan would acknowledge this), the reporters can't really be trusted to regularly distinguish between the things that are diverting and interesting but not particularly consequential, and the things that actually affect the outcome of the election. That isn't because they don't understand it, it's because there are strong incentives to portray everything as consequential. It's one of the most powerful biases in political reporting. The president's approval went up two points? Comeback! The candidate got mustard on his tie? Game changer! It's understandable, to a point: when you're suffering through the drudgery of the campaign trail, you don't want to believe this thing to which you've devoted a year of your life is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

All that means that as long as those incentives remain in place, it's going to be hard to make large improvements in campaign coverage. But every little bit helps.

Comments

One of the reasons political journalism can't get better is that most analysis of political journalism is done by journalists. For instance, Paul suggests that what journalists like to cover is "events". How does that stack up against the most notorious attempt at political journalism in recent memory: Chris Cillizza's declaration that it makes no difference what the CBO says, what matters is how it is spun and understood.
So what is the event? The release of a report. And what is the coverage? Everything but the event.
Sure, "news" has to be new, but that means events are a tiny part of the news. Events don't have legs. They are the very definition of old news. Reporters vastly prefer reporting on things that they make up like "trends" and "perceptions." The obvious advantage of made up news is that IT CHANGES EVERYDAY. That's the actual result of deadlines and the requirement that the news be "new". Not events, but fantasy.

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