Public demands more from media on presidential candidates

Saturday, November 17, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:52 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

A friend forwarded one of those online quizzes that allow you to match your positions on the issues to those of the presidential candidates. I couldn’t resist. My candidate turned out to be Chris Dodd, closely followed by Mike Gravel.

Chris Dodd? Mike Gravel?? It seems that Sen. Dodd and I agree on immigration, taxes, health care, abortion, Social Security and every other issue except for Iraq and energy. Who knew? Like millions of other Americans — including you, I suspect — I had no idea what Sen. Dodd’s positions were on anything except Iraq.

I blame the media.

Early as it is in this campaign cycle, I’ve tried to inform myself about issues and candidates. I watched Barack Obama on “Meet the Press” last week. I’ve seen John McCain more than once on “The Daily Show.” I read the papers. And I couldn’t have told you much about where most of the presidential candidates actually stand on most issues.

There’s a reason for that. The Project for Excellence in Journalism released its first report on how the presidential race is being covered. The national press corps should be embarrassed. Voters should be angry. Here’s the opening paragraph of the PEJ report:

“In the early months of the 2008 presidential campaign, the media had already winnowed the race to mostly five candidates and offered Americans relatively little information about their records or what they would do if elected, according to a comprehensive new study of election coverage across the media.”

The five anointed candidates, you’ll not be surprised to see, are Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rudy Guiliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain. OK, I can understand even if I can’t applaud that. They’re the leaders, by comfortable margins, in the polls so far.

But what I can’t understand, and what should make us all demand better, is this: The content analysis of campaign coverage showed that 63 percent of all stories “focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign.” Another 17 percent dealt with the candidates’ personal backgrounds. Only 15 percent reported the candidates’ policy ideas, and only 1 percent looked at their records or past performance.

As a citizen, I’m irritated and disappointed. As a journalist, I’m feeling let down by my professional colleagues.

You might say, even though that isn’t the political science model of what coverage should look like, it must be what the public wants.

It isn’t. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press did a companion study of what we news consumers say we want from journalists. What we’re getting isn’t even close. Nearly 80 percent of the survey’s respondents said they want more reporting on candidates’ issue positions. More than half said they want more on candidates’ backgrounds and experiences, and more on the candidates who aren’t the front runners. Only 42 percent said they want more on the horse race, and 45 percent said they want less of that.

I’m complaining out loud. You should do the same. It’s our election.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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