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INFORMATION FLOW, POLITICAL COMPETITION STIFLED BY JOURNALISTIC HABITS

Covering Campaigns, Journalism in Congressional Elections
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, elections.

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 professors.

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, unwritten philosophies.

"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 priority.

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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