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Goodykoontz: Partisan politics drives coverage


The following ran in the Sept. 24, 2012, edition of the Arizona Republic. Journalism professor Tony Pederson provided expertise for this story.

September 27, 2012

by Bill Goodykoontz

The presidential election is drawing closer; you can probably tell because your television set is melting.
OK, maybe it only seems that way when you turn on the news to try to get a sense of how the campaign is going. If you have not been able to check in recently, here is an update: Everybody hates everybody else. And if you are not on my side, well, I hate you, too.
There are details, of course, but that's the gist of things. Campaigns are by their nature confrontational. One guy is trying to keep a job that the other guy is trying to take away from him.

The higher the stakes, the greater the tension. And the bigger the media coverage.
But as President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney hit the home stretch in the presidential race, their audience is sharply divided, with few people left undecided. The media have to cover this, naturally, but with revenue and audience attention spans declining at alarming rates and increasingly fragmented followings as social media and the blogosphere increasingly become players (and competitors), it's a tough slog.
Are the media up to the task? We get coverage, sure, and plenty of it. But with all of the sniping, accusations and posturing among the campaigns, what do we get, really?
"Readers and viewers are getting what they want," Stephen Medvic, an associate professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said. "If large numbers of people demanded substantive and balanced news, media outlets would provide it. People don't seem to want that.
"Furthermore, it's not clear to me how a media outlet would establish credibility as a substantive and balanced source. In the current environment, one side or the other will decide that any given media outlet is biased as soon as it ran a story that was negative for that side's candidate, regardless of the truth of the story."
It is a familiar dilemma.
"The news media has always been stuck between being a watchdog of the political elite and being perceived as a lapdog of the political elite," said Dan Birdsong, a political-science lecturer at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
He says the problem is what is called the "hostile-media phenomenon": Democrats, Republicans and others with highly committed points of view perceive impartial news stories as biased in favor of their opponents.
"Their response to the campaign propaganda is the growing number of fact checkers," Birdsong said. "And news media outlets either use an outside fact checker or try to do their own fact checking. The problem I see now is that people are questioning the fact checkers: so, the fact checkers need fact checkers. It's an ugly cycle."
But let's not blame the media, at least not solely. There is plenty of blame to go around, starting at the top.
"Both candidates seem devoid of new ideas, and both campaigns seem to be running on focus-group-tested slogans and images rather than having responses to the real issues that should be discussed," said Tony Pederson, a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"Both campaigns are fixated on how bad things will be if the other candidate is elected. In this strategy, offering realistic solutions to the key problems simply isn't necessary."
Of course, Pederson doesn't find the media blameless, either.
"The news media, with fewer reporters covering the campaigns and less space and time being devoted to the coverage, play right into the hands of the sound bites and the facile responses," he said.
"As well, the mainstream media with the recognized pundits and columnists seem more and more to have taken sides, either on the left or the right."

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