Campaign Coverage Lessons for the Media

Article excerpt

Like the chicken and the egg, there is the question of which came first: the overemphasis of "manufactured news" by media covering political campaigns; or the political campaign manufacturing events so they will get covered by the media.

Both are part of the triangle -- the public is the third leg -- that shapes the nature of political campaigns, according to a new study of campaign coverage by researchers at the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

The project, "Campaign Lessons for '92," is based on the theories of educator Sissela Bok, who "concluded that there are three 'vicious circles' at play in any campaign: the people, the politicians and the press. Since these are 'dynamic systems, not static ones,' she believed that, if any one of them could be charged for the better, the other two would be similarly affected," wrote Marvin Kalb, director of the center.

The latest report is the second of two examining the electorial process and the role of the press. The first report, "Nine Sundays: A proposal for better presidential campaign coverage," outlined suggestions for national candidate debates and interviews (E&P, Sept. 14, P. 18).

"If a single overriding theme emerges from this [second] work, it is a concern that campaigns have become distant from the concerns of voters, that a 'disconnect' has developed between the electorate and their prospective leaders -- that journalism, rather than bridging the gap, has helped create and sustain it," Kalb wrote in the report's executive summary.

The basic problems with campaign coverage, according to the report, include:

* "The press has generally adopted too much of an insider's approach to its campaign coverage. The insider's perspective is rooted in an overemphasis on the most obvious and enticing part of the campaign: the 'horserace' drama of which candidate is ahead and who is likely to win. Horse-race coverage leads to more stories about campaign strategy than about substance."

* "The emphasis on political strategy over substance has allowed political advertising to supplant reporting as the most important vehicle for transmitting policy information to voters.

"Candidates take advantage of the paucity of issue-based coverage to proffer what amounts to their own versions of news, in the form of a burgeoning volume of political ads in prime-time television."

* "The production demands of television, which place a premium on symbolic visual elements and powerful emotional moments, have come to dictate the daily activities of presidential candidates and to drive out the extended explanation of issue positions."

* "Reporters have responded to this development with an ill-advised new form of reportage, a kind of 'theater criticism' about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of event staging . …