COLORADO — Reporter Patrick Malone answers quickly when asked to identify the hardest part of covering politics for his newspaper, The Pueblo Chieftain.
“It’s finding the truth within the rhetoric from both parties” in an era of instant communication and unrelenting pressure on journalists to break news, he says.
Malone points to the pre-Christmas showdown in Congress over extending the payroll tax cut, when a policy stalemate set the spin cycle in motion.
“You get an email or a tweet that says the Democrats just denied a tax break to the middle class, and a second later, you get one that says the Republicans did the same thing, and the heat is on [from editors] to get both of these messages out—to retweet both.
“The campaigns’ messaging is what we have to sift through—their message versus reality—and in 140 characters, it’s almost impossible to discern,” says Malone.
With the 2012 campaign set to begin in earnest, questions about the trustworthiness of information in the digital age beg to be addressed: Will reporters have the time they need to “sift through” the increasing amount of online partisan information from campaigns? Will efforts to keep track of—or push back against—the campaigns’ claims come at the expense of substantive reporting? And what are the implications for the Fourth Estate, and our democracy, when candidates can disseminate their unmediated, unchallenged messages directly to voters?
Like most of his colleagues who work out of the Capitol in Denver, Malone has witnessed a sea change in political messaging. Campaigns, whether legislative or electoral, are far less reliant on traditional media to reach the public. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and email, politicians and their staff now have new ways to connect with voters.
In this way, campaigns are just figuring out what tech-savvy companies have already learned, says Sandra Fish, a journalist and journalism instructor at the University of Colorado. “You take your message directly to the people who have an interest in your brand and get them on board with that message and get them to help spread it.”
And, in the process, bypass scrutiny from reporters. Some observers see in this shift a way to circumvent the biases of the media, like overemphasis on the horse race. But Malone worries about the potential for agenda-driven sources to spread corrupt or incomplete information—and also the pressure that the new technology exerts on journalists.
“We really used to be leaders by being gatekeepers of the news and (researching) what is legitimate. Now we’ve become followers in the interest of being first and fastest,” he says. And he wonders if reporters could become tools of partisan organizations, outmatched by their superior resources and organization. “Are we going to allow ourselves to be nothing more than billboards or are we still going to take the time to find out what these stories mean at the expense of being 10 minutes or an hour or two later than the next guy?”
Joe Hanel, political reporter for The Durango Herald, shares Malone’s concerns about campaigns’ expanded messaging ability, though he believes most voters are sophisticated enough to see through the propaganda put out by partisan websites.
What bothers Hanel more is those sites’ ability to influence elite and media opinion, which is their main goal, he believes. “They understand very well the motivations that editors and reporters have—that one of our baser instincts is competition.”
As a rule, Hanel says, reporters simply ignore bogus story ideas pitched by party operatives—until one reporter takes the bait. “All of a sudden your editor says, ‘Why didn’t we have it?’ and then everyone is dog-piling on the story And then you have to do the story, no matter what. You can even write that the claim [being reported in the story] is not borne out by the evidence, but the fact is you’re still writing about it and driving the news cycle for a day.”
Hanel cited an example from early December that he said illustrated his point—though it also underscores how journalists may make different choices when confronted with hard decisions about how to combat false or unsupported narratives.