Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Media's Last Chance to Give Us All the Coverage We Need

Amidst rumors of financial ruin and dark Intimations of racial and social unrest pending the results of the election next week, here are are some timely questions for the media...

If you found it easier for the past few months to get cabs and places at the bar in any of the big media center cities, it’s only partly because of the financial crisis. The other reason is that there has been an exodus of “journalists, reporters and correspondents” to the wild north. While the leaping, wriggling schools of big city media types were making the streets of Wasilla and Juneau looked more like crowded Alaskan Salmon spawning streams at the height of the run, Crickets must have been chirping in New York, Los Angeles and (especially) Chicago.

The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism has published a pretty good study of press coverage up to the last presidential debate. The finding that has been most talked about (and misunderstood) is that in looking at the number of articles about each presidential candidate, the number of positive article about Obama outnumbers the positive articles about McCain by a margin of 3 to 1. This is dramatic and damning but is softened in the report by analysis that shows it is almost always the case that the frontrunner gets more coverage than the other candidate and that much of the positive content was about the lead in the polls. More interesting but still somewhat off the mark was the analytics on the “tone” of coverage. The tone issue is hard to measure but taken together, the study does find that the media has take a different tone with Obama than they have with McCain.

Far more important and much harder to measure is the importance of the things that do not get coverage. On this issue there is no discussion in this study and very little evidence that can be culled. It is important to try to look at what has not been covered, though, because the Media has a responsibility, not just to give accurate and complete coverage within a story, but to cover all stories that pertain to the action.

The journalistic spawning run in Alaska, the corresponding sound of chirping crickets in Obama’s Chicago precincts and the absence of any follow-through on his “lost” time at Columbia are aspects that are hard to quantify and even harder to evaluate for impact.

One indication that can be tracked however is the fact that The Second Presidential Debate offers a laboratory for the effect of one of the issues that the Media has missed on.

The Media has consistently minimized the importance of William Ayers as a negative factor for Obama. They stayed away from talking about the relationship and its meaning throughout the campaign. Then, in the second debate, John McCain, in utter frustration took on the job of informing the public about this association.

Much was made about the tactic backfiring on McCain because it pushed up his negatives noticeably. The media has given a big chuckle of amused vindication and gone back to saying “We were right not to report on it because it is not a factor- people are not interested.” But they are wrong. One look at the chart below shows how wrong they are. The Pew report identifies a clear effect, “…the McCain camp linked Obama with ‘60’s radical William Ayers, 45% of the stories studied about Obama were negative, while 25% were positive and another 30% were mixed. The McCain attacks worked, in other words, in changing the dialogue in the media, as well as the tone of that dialogue.”

The soaring negatives that the attacks brought to the McCain campaign were scalding and the campaign felt they had to be stopped immediately to cut the losses. The question remains, “What has the absence of coverage on key issues done to channel the course of the campaign?

Again, this can only be answered indirectly but the next chart offers a very important clue. The chart clearly shows that almost three quarter of the coverage of this campaign were on the two categories of subject matter (“The Political Horse Race” and “Advertising and Fundraising”) that have nothing to do with the Personal Character, Background, Record of Achievement or Ability to be President of the candidates.

What if the McCain camp were not forced to bring the negatives of Barak Obama to the public’s attention at a severe price in public opinion? What if the press spent more time looking at character, love for this country and leadership experience? How would that change their Horse Race Stories?

As we head into the final week of this election cycle we need to ask our media this question:
In the years to come, everyone will be looking at you and your role in this election. What will you say to them about it? Will you take responsibility?

You, the mainstream media, are not telling the American public what it needs to know. You are not giving us all the information we need.

The information is out there, you are not using it, not looking for it and sometimes even suppressing it .

We will be waiting.

1 comment:

Jewish Odysseus said...

"What will you say to them about it? Will you take responsibility?"

Yaakov, Yaakov, Yaakov.

Come on. This is tooooooo easy. Ahem:

"Don't even think about blaming us--We were just doing our usual cool professional job."