INFORMATION FLOW, POLITICAL COMPETITION
STIFLED BY JOURNALISTIC HABITS
Covering Campaigns, Journalism in Congressional
By Peter Clarke and Susan H. Evans,
Stanford University Press, 151 pages. $21.50
Reviewed by Werner Bartsch
If the political reporting in the 1978 races for the
U.S. House of Representatives is any indication, Americans seeking
objective assessments would be as well served by partisan advertising
as by the press. Such will be the unhappy conclusion of readers
who can wade through this academic treatment that encourages little
interest in this alarming revelation.
Clarke and Evans, respectively Dean and Director of the Program
of Communication and Contemporary Issues at the University of California's
Annenberg School of Communications, studied 100 daily newspapers
across the United States. They assembled a discouragingly ample
mound of evidence to show that editorial habits served the cost-efficient
collection and dissemination of news rather than the careful analysis
of candidates' strengths and weaknesses; that reporters saw congressional
politics as a stepping stone to better beats; that instead of furthering
democracy's free flow of information, print journalists stifled
it, and that rather than encouraging competition, newspapers stacked
the cards in favour of incumbents.
Called "an important shift in a long-standing tradition of
media-and-politics research," the study was unique. It focused
on the work habits of media professionals rather than on the media-reliance
patterns of voters. It examined congressional, rather than presidential,
One of the sub-themes of the book was that journalists consistently,
and knowingly, played into the hands of the incumbents. Without
exception, incumbents received almost twice the coverage, and a
greater percentage of this reportage concerned their role in political
events. Even in "tight" races, usually covered with the
most enthusiasm, incumbents received more coverage for less effort.
Although such a bias acknowledges that incumbents are in office
while challengers are not, there is a greater problem, widespread
in journalism. It is the tendency to prefer "colourful stories"
about the challengers' personalities to those based on issues.
Like reporters everywhere, those covering congressional elections
tended to downplay issues. (Readers find issues tedious, was the
stock reply). This deprived readers of varied reporting while it
further undermined the challengers; if they couldn't get attention
around issues, how else were they to challenge the incumbent?
Clarke and Evans constantly express amazement at their discoveries.
Readers are led to infer they must be an intelligent but naive species
of academic who have wandered into reality from the confines of
university life only for the purposes of this study. The authors
made a great deal of their surprise when they discovered that challengers
could only move into front-page limelight when backed by big money
and media-wise campaign managers. (Most journalists got more information
from the campaign managers than they did from the candidates.) That
"tight" races got more attention came as a shock to the
But how could anyone who regularly reads the papers not have noticed
that political contests are covered like horse races? Cover the
flashy one and pick the winner is the name of the game, and incumbents
are usually returned in most elections. Unfortunately, such habits
hardly encourage rigorous public debate.
Ironically, the study found journalists spent just as much time
on the challengers' campaigns as on the incumbents'. But somehow,
this did not translate into equal coverage.
The authors should have underlined in red their finding that a
newspaper endorsing an incumbent gave that candidate proportionately
greater news coverage than a similar paper which had a policy of
not endorsing anyone. Instead, as if they hadn't read a newspaper
since party journalism died 100 years ago, they were annoyed to
learn that most papers have shied away from editorial-page endorsements
altogether. They seemed amazed that "editorials lack intellectual
substance; they offer thin argumentative gruel," and were
quick to spot when newspaper practices conflicted with popular,
"We can add that in six of ten papers the style of reaching
endorsement decisions entails a minimum of work. And at almost no
paper does the editorial-page editor claim to have consulted reporters,
who follow candidates during their vote-seeking gyrations. It is
hard to reconcile this causualness in performance with the widespread
belief in the journalistic community that endorsements make a difference
in the political process."
One of the most interesting, and readable, sections of the book
is the last chapter. It's the result of a preemptive strike on
criticism. The authors discussed their study with a cross-section
of reporters and editors. They examined the validity of their conclusions
and sought recommendations for possible improvements.
Their lengthy list of suggestions, gleaned from dozens of interviews,
offer a ray of hope. It shows that journalists do think about the
shortcomings of political reporting, and that they can see solutions.
But unfortunately, it also reveals a fatal structural flaw in the
organization "culture" of newspapers. Many suggestions
appeared so simple and obvious one wonders why they had not already
been implemented. Apparently making these changes is just not anyone's
The authors miss an opportunity to make clear one disheartening
impression that lay hidden between the lines of the comments made
by newspaper staff. Reporters and editors lacked a vision of the
overall communications environment.
They couldn't see themselves as participants in a massive information
flow that, for most people, comprised all randomly acquired new
knowledge. Journalists didn't see that their practice of supporting
the incumbents reinforced undemocratic elections by encouraging
an underinformed public to blindly choose the devil it knew.
Published in Sources Winter 83/84
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