Ethics of campaign coverage

We’re in the midst of the longest U.S. presidential campaign in recent memory — perhaps the longest ever. The endless news cycle and the overexposure of election coverage lead TV news journalists to undermine the seriousness of the situation, and worse, ignore established journalistic and ethical standards.This being the year 2008, we’re also more connected than ever, with more access to cable television and the Internet than ever before. Along with all the access to information also comes an unprecedented amount of presidential campaign and election coverage.

The problem with an overexposure to presidential campaign and election coverage in this country is that TV news often ends up in redundancy, clinging to issues that don’t really matter. Such an effect leads television news journalists to undermine the seriousness of the situation, and worse, ignore established journalistic and ethical standards.

How we got here

In order to fully understand how we came to a situation in which the election cycle has become a television circus, it’s necessary to understand the history of presidential campaign and election coverage on television.

Critics have lambasted TV news coverage of presidential elections for a few decades now, but beginning prominently in the 1990s, when networks like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News became a driving force of television news, and the idea of the “24/7 news cycle” came to fruition.

Historically, the public generally held TV journalists with high regard, trusting them for accurate, unbiased, timely information. The introduction of cable news networks blurred the lines between journalists and commentators, however, and presented a situation in which viewers could no longer be sure that they would be exposed to just the most important news.

In a continuous effort to fill the 24/7 news cycle with non-stop content, cable networks began creating entire story arcs and controversies to keep ratings up and to keep the public entertained—not exactly the best way to follow journalistic standards or keep a focus on the real importance of legitimate, newsworthy events.

Double-speak

At the same time, while fiery personalities began to drive much of cable news’ campaign coverage, the regular “news reporters” on those channels were reduced to roles that also failed to follow journalistic standards.

Wortham and Locher (1999) suggest that television news coverage of presidential campaigns became increasingly unconstructive by 1992 and 1996, at which time, reporters began using “embedded metapragmatics,” or a type of double-speak that keeps the reporter from claiming anything themselves.

For example, “reporters almost never make statements like ‘Bush lied about Clinton’s claim’, but they often make statements like ‘Bush claimed that Clinton lied’” (Wortham & Locher, 1999). By inserting the double attribution, the reporter removes him or herself entirely from the situation, acting less as a journalist using ethical standards to come to a coherent conclusion, and acting more as a newsreader or messenger that cannot be held accountable for what he or she said, which directly contradicts a major tenet of journalistic ethics.

Such a workaround began to allow reporters to inject opinions, falsehoods, and accusations as if they were facts, simply by attributing everything they said to at least two other sources, in some cases creating a circular or otherwise nonsense reference.

Wortham and Locher claim, “Mainstream reporters do not want to express clear bias toward one political party, nor do they want to be responsible for any unsubstantiated accusations. Reporters thus face a delicate situation when handling partly-substantiated allegations about politicians’ lies or other moral transgressions” (Wortham & Locher, 1999).

It may be convenient for reporters to remove themselves from any accountability, but major ethical codes for journalists insist that the reporter must be accountable and willing to back up his or her statements instead of avoiding the situation.

Reinforcing biases

Through that analysis, we see that as early as 1992 and 1996, both “talking heads” and unaccountable reporters had started to dilute television news coverage of the presidential campaigns.

The ratings success of cable news, though, especially of the fiery talk radio-style personalities, might be explained through further analysis. D’Alessio (2003) found that readers and viewers enjoy being exposed to views that replicate their own biases, and further, “were more likely to designate material opposing their own views as biased” (D’Alessio, 2003).

This conclusion may help to explain how personalities like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity have established such large, faithful audiences. Under the umbrella claim of being “Fair & Balanced,” FOX News has been able to convince millions of viewers that they are getting a clear picture of news and events from presidential campaigns, when in reality, the on-screen personalities masquerading as fair and independent reporters are simply reinforcing the viewers’ existing biases.

Polls, polls, polls

With accountability already seemingly tossed out the window and biased coverage running rampant on cable news, the situation looks fairly grim already, but there is another yet-unexplored element of the effects of TV news on the presidential campaign coverage: the overabundance of polls and the pollsters responsible for them.

Daves and Newport (2005) examined TV and cable news’ reliance on polls throughout the 2004 presidential campaign season, claiming right away in their introduction, “The 2004 election was remarkable for a number of reasons, including the harsh, personal attacks from all parts of the political spectrum on a number of media pollsters,” further insisting that there has been a “growing practice of trying to mitigate perceived damage by any message in the political marketplace” (Daves & Newport, 2005).

The authors believe that polls and pollsters have taken the focus off of legitimate issues and messages in presidential campaigns, instead choosing to focus on non-issues while running some other topics into the ground.

Further, these polls largely ignore one of the major ethical expectations of the Society of Professional Journalists, which insists to avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, and other factors. Cable news coverage of polls in particular breaks down all of the findings into these categories, creating the impression to viewers that all people of a certain group must feel the same way about any given issue in the presidential campaign.

The 24/7 news cycle of cable news then feeds off of these poll results in order to keep the information flowing and create the impression that there is always legitimate new data coming into the networks’ news centers. Although many of these polls directly contradict each other and may not apply to anything voters legitimately care about, news networks can use them and label them as “breaking news” to again maintain ratings and entertainment value.

Off the rails

In a similar vein, Skewes and Plaisance (2005) discussed obsession over “electability” and “likability” of the presidential candidates during coverage of the campaigns and elections, instead of focusing on where the candidates actually stand on the issues.

The study talked about the fact that almost half of eligible voters simply do not get out to vote, even in a major presidential election that only comes around once every four years. It made the argument that some potential voters feel alienated by news outlets’ methods of assessing candidates, so they tune out, become disinterested in the campaign, and end up not voting at all (Skewes & Plaisance, 2005).

Among some of the criticism of the coverage from the public was that it did not properly represent the candidates, it was too sensational, it was driven only by attempts to increase ratings, and that stories about candidates were exaggerated. The scholars they studied seemed to agree for the most part, indicating that the media did not spend enough time talking about candidates’ public policy ideas and opinions, instead focusing on campaign strategy, public opinion polls, and fundraising efforts.

Further, the study made an argument that the continuously increasing primary season has caused a change in how the media decides to cover the election. Each election cycle, primaries move earlier and earlier, expanding the overall amount of time of election coverage. The overexposure to campaign coverage leads to the further weakening of legitimate news and the increase of filler stories, prediction and competition, and the reporting of unsubstantiated poll information as fact (Skewes & Plaisance, 2005).

The upper hand

Some critics have claimed in recent years that the cable news atmosphere has also changed other media for the worse. Professor Tom Edsall of the Columbia University School of Journalism told PBS NewsHour in 2008, “I think what has happened, to some extent, is that news has become very competitive. The news is now 24/7 – and the print press has allowed itself to get enmeshed in this same competitive atmosphere. So one thing you can try to be ahead on is predicting who’s the winner” (Brown, 2008).

This competition leaves all media attempting to out-predict one another, each insisting that they have the upper hand and the most reliable information to help predict the outcome of the presidential primaries or elections, again ignoring ethical standards such as the expectation that news content should never be distorted.

Television news has made an institution out of distorting presidential campaign events and election results to the point of absurdity, keeping viewers entertained by wild predictions and random swings, but discarding the expectations of journalism and media ethics.

Comedic critics

The transformation of TV news coverage of presidential campaigns into absurdity, interestingly, has also brought with it the transformation of absurdity and comedy into a quasi-legitimate form of news.

Considering the criticism of television news coverage of presidential campaigns, some analysts have begun to believe that entertainers and non-journalists on non-news television networks have become presented with a situation in which they can, in some cases, offer better and more complete campaign coverage than the traditional news outlets, in at least some part due to the fact that comedians and other entertainers are not faced with the same expectations as traditional journalists.

Borden and Tew (2007) suggest that “fake” news programs on Comedy Central, such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, actually outperform legitimate news outlets in some respects. Their analysis suggests that fake news anchors “do not share the moral commitments” of journalists, leading them to the conclusion that sometimes “they do a better job performing the functions of journalism than journalists themselves” (Borden & Tew, 2007).

They claim that Colbert and Stewart are more along the line of media critics, acting as a watchdog of sorts to keep the other TV news coverage of presidential campaigns and elections in a proper perspective. For example, Comedy Central’s “Indecision” has been a recurring yearlong event since 1992, in which the network parodies the presidential campaign and election coverage found on other networks, featuring comedians that analyze and criticize the news coverage on other networks.

Although everything on the network stays within the context of comedy, there is legitimate criticism of media and politicians to be found in the content, leading NBC News’ Tom Brokaw to claim in May 2008, “Jon Stewart and I have talked about this a lot, and it troubles him a lot because he is a very serious consumer of news. I keep reassuring him, because I don’t think he really needs to be reassured, that what he is doing is important because what he is doing is bringing people to the subject matter, and they can’t watch Jon for half-an-hour, and they can’t watch Stephen for half-an-hour, without having interest in what else is going on in the world” (Huffington, 2008).

The bridge created between a respected and traditional journalist and a comedian might seem baffling at first but makes sense when considered in the context of viewing Stewart and Colbert as media critics.

Citizens step up

MTV’s recurring “Choose or Lose” series has also provided an outlet for unconventional campaign coverage. Since 1992, the network has targeted campaign coverage at the teens and early 20s demographic.

In 2008, the network took “Choose or Lose” to a new level by teaming up with cellular phone company Nokia to encourage viewers to send in their own video coverage of campaign-related events. A project manager for Nokia Research Center supported the effort by saying, “Citizen journalism is beginning to embrace a wide range of public engagement with the media, from groups of contributors organized around subject or geographic areas to the casual participation of observers who are lucky – or unlucky – enough to be at the scene of a newsworthy event” (Catone, 2008).

MTV News’ vision of citizen journalism essentially turns the idea of journalism on its head. Making the implication, as “Indecision” also does, that traditional news outlets have abandoned journalistic ethics, they make the claim they can offer a fuller picture at the end of the day by completely avoiding the entire traditional setup of journalism and approaching the situation in an entirely new way.

Analysis

Framing these conclusions in an ethical foundation, Borden and Tew suggest, “Using a virtue theory framework, this distinction between journalists and their imitators is morally significant because it implies differences in the kinds of excellence these moral agents are pursuing in their work” (Borden & Tew, 2007).

The analysis supports the implication from networks such as Comedy Central and MTV that their campaign coverage is indeed unconventional and non-journalistic, but it might end up being more complete, more straightforward, and/or fairer than campaign coverage from more traditional cable news outlets.

After realizing how cable news coverage of presidential campaigns has failed the public so much that scholars and respected journalists recognize the role of comedians as being at least as important as TV news reporters, what can TV news do to restore its credibility?

Skewes and Plaisance (2005) suggest that there needs to be a vast overhaul of the way TV news covers presidential elections, specifically, “There should be a new model for candidate coverage that includes a broader range of candidates, represents a greater diversity of opinion, and comes at a time when voters are more likely to be paying attention” (Skewes & Plaisance, 2005).

This process would involve TV news abandoning its lack of accountability; its obsessions over predictions, polls, and competition; and its idea of campaign coverage as cheap entertainment. Viewers would witness a new variety of U.S. presidential campaign and election coverage that represents a more accurate style of journalism: one that upholds ethical standards, treats all parties equally and fairly, and performs a legitimate public service.

References

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