Is It Possible to be Objective Covering Politics?
As a journalism major at Temple University, I am troubled by the lack of objectivity in much of the election news coverage this campaign season. Is it possible to be completely objective when covering politics? At my liberal campus, none of my classmates even realize they aren't being objective. I defend Republicans just because no one is representing them. It makes me sad. What do you think?
No one is truly objective, but it is possible to cover an election objectively, even if you as an individual reporter have a point of view.
It's likely that a majority of mainstream media reporters and editors will vote Democratic today. As Michael Kinsley and others have noted, journalism tends to attract more liberals - reflecting the political leanings of their circulation areas. But those who strive for objectivity in their work (which I, as an opinion journalist, do not) may actually be tougher on the parties and candidates they prefer in their personal life -- partly because they are overcompensating for their beliefs, and partly because it is easier to be disappointed, and even annoyed, at your own "team" when it falters or doesn't do what you want it to do. No one is harsher in criticizing the Pittsburgh Steelers, my team, as I am when they mess up. The media's brutal coverage of the early days of the Clinton White House in the early '90s may prove a similar point.
That said, you are right that an increasing number of media outlets are no longer trying to practice "old school" objective journalism. The media audience is increasingly fragmented, with consumers obtaining news and information from sources that tend to reaffirm their point of view. Partisan blogs are the best example of this trend, but the 2008 election cycle will also be remembered as the election that exacerbated this trend in television.
Fox News has long been the model for successful, opinionated TV news coverage, and this year MSNBC, a long-struggling channel, embraced the model from the other end of the spectrum, naming leftist pundits to anchor primetime news shows -- much to the dismay of traditionalists within the larger NBC News family. Agree with the move or not, MSNBC has become a more relevant player this election cycle, boasting higher ratings as a result of its newfound liberal bias. And to further undermine the thesis that identity necessarily determines bias in media, bear in mind that many of the top General Electric executives signing off on MSNBC's business strategy are probably Republicans.
How can the media claim to be un-biased toward either candidate when coverage toward McCain is 60-70 percent negative and coverage toward Obama is 20-30 percent negative? The only exception seems to be Fox News, which had 40 percent negative coverage of both candidates. Maybe Fox really is fair and balanced?
Good related question. But I have to disagree with your premise that in a world of objective news coverage each candidate would receive the same dosage of "positive" and "negative" coverage. Bias can be perceived when two similarly situated candidates are treated differently, or when a double standard is applied to analogous situations. But when one team plays better than the other, it makes no sense to expect both candidates to be treated the same. I'm sure if you studied last year's national coverage of the NFL, my Steelers, who made it to the playoffs, received more "positive" coverage than the Miami Dolphins, who won only managed to win one game all season. That's not because the sports media is biased against the Dolphins. The coverage simply reflects the team's performance.
In this election cycle, Barack Obama's campaign has been the more impressive operation, in terms of the consistency of its message, the candidate's equanimity under pressure, its fundraising prowess and so on. John McCain's campaign, meanwhile, has been sloppy in both branding its candidate and executing on any kind of consistent strategy. Stories about McCain's marginal vetting of Sarah Palin are a good case in point. And given the mismatch we've seen, it would be odd if media coverage consisted of an equal ratio of "positive" to "negative" stories for both campaigns.
As a high school student in Los Angeles, I unfortunately can't vote today, but I'm wondering if you have noticed a shift, whereby more people are making their choice of presidential candidates based on issues of character rather than just acting on the traditional red-state, blue-state divide?
According to Gallup surveys, perhaps a quarter to a third of the electorate votes for a particular party based on policies and partisan leanings, without comparing the characters of the two candidates for president. But an equally large slice of the electorate (they tend to be people less engaged in politics on a regular basis) try to sum up the character of candidates, and make their decisions accordingly. The way this assessment is described shifts over time -- in 1980 voters were drawn to Ronald Reagan's "optimism" and the sense that he was "comfortable in his own skin"; in 2000 George Bush was the candidate voters most wanted to have a beer with. But Americans' interest in electing someone who is not only capable, but genuine, is consistent. And despite the red and blue divide on display in recent elections, I predict that in years when one candidate is deemed a clear winner on individual character traits, we will see a return to more lopsided election returns.
By Andres Martinez |
November 4, 2008; 12:00 AM ET
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