Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting has a new study out, detailing how ABC World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News have been covering Election 2008. Discussion of the actual issues (which are relevant to everyone's voting decisions, and should be covered by any sensible journalist) has been largely replaced with discussions of campaign strategy (which requires no effort, and really only helps the candidates themselves - and they can already afford good PR people). Among its findings:
To anybody who has been paying attention to the endless coverage of flag pins, pastors, comments by surrogates, how much you tip your waitress, how old you are, what happened to your passport, how much you paid for your haircut, what your bowling score is, what the ethnic breakdown of the next state is, etc. this comes as no surprise. But still, it's good to have something quantifiable to point to in the future.
Of the 385 news stories aired on ABC World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News:
• 252 stories were mainly about campaign strategy--the “how” of getting elected--and 79 of those were only about strategy.
Only 19 stories, or one story in 20, were mainly about issues.
Eighty six percent of the stories were about campaign strategy/analysis, while 41 percent mentioned issues.
• When issues such as the economy, immigration and the Iraq War were present in a story, they were more often than not referred to in passing, usually in relation to polling.
In the 55 stories that raised the Iraq War as an issue, the networks made no mention of any of the Democrats’ plans for troop withdrawal or their stances on the troop “surge.”
• There was a vast discrepancy in the amount of coverage candidates received, with Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, John McCain and Mitt Romney all receiving over 900 mentions, while Joe Biden, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich received ten or fewer mentions.
Kucinich appeared only seven times, with four of those reporting on his exiting the race.
UPDATE II: Glenn Greenwald makes an important point:
In addition to how destructive is the premise that readers and viewers crave trivial political reporting, that claim also seems quite factually dubious. The same media outlets which operate on this assumption -- network news programs and newspapers -- watch as their viewership and readership disappears. Given their performance, they shouldn't be particularly confident in their ability to know what the public wants.
Moreover, polls consistently show that Americans hate the type of political coverage our establishment press feeds them. A comprehensive study (.pdf) by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and U.S. News and World Report is very instructive:
Specifically, Americans overwhelmingly believe "media coverage" of the 2008 presidential race focuses "too much on trivial issues":
They also say -- again, overwhelmingly -- that "large corporations have too much influence over what the news media reports" and "most journalists don't make the effort to get the whole story":
Similar data demonstrates that Americans overwhelmingly believe that the media provides far too little coverage of substantive issues and policy debates and far too much coverage of petty gossip and personality-based attacks.
It's therefore unsurprising that the news media is held in the lowest esteem of all institutions -- even lower than the widely reviled Bush-led "executive branch" -- and that perception is only worsening:
Leave to the side (for the moment) the question of whether political journalists have an obligation (by virtue of the numerous privileges in the law and otherwise they are given) beyond maximizing ratings. The standard excuse that journalists like Harris give for their obsession with insipid gossip -- "it's what The People Want" -- is the opposite of what The People say when they speak for themselves. And while it's possible that what The People say they want is not really what they want, the declining audience and influence of establishment news outlets across the board is potent evidence of how false is the justification that the political media focus on irrelevancies because it's what The People demand.
The political media focuses on trivialities because it's easiest, because it's what they do best, and because it's the way that they (and the sprawling corporations that own them) avoid alienating those in political power on whom they depend.