Taking It To The Streets

Reporters shouldn't let campaign priorities dictate political coverage

Despite the buzz surrounding the current presidential campaign, historical trends suggest a sizeable portion of the American public will not vote this year. Journalists can claim a good deal of the credit for the public’s disconnection to national politics—a 2007 Pew poll (PDF) found that a majority of those surveyed, while still holding an overall positive opinion of the press, nonetheless thought the media was biased, often inaccurate, and unlikely to report on things that readers cared about.

A survey of just about any paper’s political coverage leaves little mystery as to why. Today’s top headlines in The New York Times’s politics section: “McCain Aide’s Firm Was Paid by Freddie Mac,” “Pinpoint Attacks Focus on Obama,” “Obama and McCain Stand Firm on Bailout,” and so on. The Chicago Tribune: “Wal-Mart shoppers: McCain’s battlefield,” “Biden hits coal-country nerve,” “Obama, McCain: Economy lifts Obama.” The Dallas Morning News: McCain, Obama in virtual tie for women’s votes, new poll finds,” “Palin meets with Kissinger, presidents of Afghanistan, Colombia,” McCain, Obama tread carefully on the economy.”

This is not another complaint about our focus on “horse race” coverage—many of these stories are unquestionably news, and some horse-race coverage is necessary. The problem is that political reporters follow the campaigns as closely as an EKG monitors a patient’s heart rate. We get a lot of coverage about what candidates do and what the campaigns think is important. But that is not the same thing as covering what voters would like them to do and what Americans care about. A campaign might choose to talk about abortion, for example, even when the economy and health care are more important to most voters, because it mobilizes a key constituency to go to the polls.

The press spends far too much time “following” the campaigns, instead of emphasizing neglected issues and rooting its coverage in the experiences of actual communities. This is not a job solely for papers in local markets—the national debate would be enriched by real news about how the presidential contest is playing out across the country—especially since swing states have a disproportionate impact on national politics. Trudy Lieberman has done a great job of this in her Health Care on the Mississippi series for CJR. But there’s always room for more.

What if, instead of shelling out to send legions of reporters to the conventions, The New York Times, the cable news networks, and other national news outlets simply assigned a pair of reporters to every swing state for the 2008 election cycle assigned to get to know the states’ voters and their concerns? They would not cover the machinations of the campaigns’ state operations, but rather drive coverage to issues the campaigns might not have an interest in talking about. They would be advocates for the voters, not a means for the campaigns to get out their “message.”

Of course, there has been some very good political reporting this cycle, even of the kind I’m describing. My favorite story remains Katherine Q. Seelye’s October, 2007 report on what patrons of South Carolina’s black beauty parlors thought about the Democratic primary. The article communicates a sense for the texture of the political debate, and how it filters into voters’ daily lives. Her reporting turned up a widespread “almost maternal concern for Mr. Obama’s safety,” an element that would be hard to elicit from polling.

Of course, Seelye was apparently tipped to the story because the Obama campaign had organized a beauty-parlor outreach campaign. But political discussions happen in community gathering spots—and, for that matter, Internet chat rooms—that no politician or journalist ever thinks to visit. Seeking out these stories without help from the campaigns is obviously a resource-intensive task. But it’d be much more informative than poll analyses that take up an unjustifiable amount of space when millions of Americans are making up their minds in a way that is infinitely more interesting than numbers can illustrate.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.