The Nightly News Nightmare: Media Coverage of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1988-2008

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The Nightly News Nightmare: Media Coverage of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1988-2008. (3d ed.) Stephen J. Farnsworth and Robert Lichter. Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010. 246 pp. $80 hbk. $24.95 pbk. $24.05 e-book.

The conclusion I draw from this updated edition of the classic work by Stephen Farnsworth and Robert Lichter, both of George Mason University, is that the free-to-air U.S. television networks long ago reneged on the deal implied but ill-articulated by the 1936 Communications Act that, in return for free access to publicly owned spectrum, these advertising-driven operations would deliver a news product that served citizenship and democracy.

There is no evidence that network television has gained from its dedication to mediocrity: The networks converted a 26percentage-point advantage over cable in 1992 to a 20% deficit in 2008, and they remain inept in attracting younger viewers. Yet the three evening newscasts continue to draw an overall audience of 25 million, so their miserable performance is a matter of great concern.

The authors' content analysis shows that media coverage of presidential elections is wretchedly inadequate and generally getting worse. The principal shortcomings are well known to readers of earlier editions: "horse-race" framing prevails over substance. There are significant problems of negativity, accuracy, and fairness. There is declining attention to candidates and excessive attention to the journalists who cover them - we hear much more from the reporters who, by 1992, were setting the tone of a story about 80% of the time, and failing to integrate the concerns and views of ordinary citizens. In 2008, two-thirds of all speaking time was allocated to journalists, with the remainder split between presidential and vice presidential candidates and other onair sources. Apart from reporters, barely any independent or nonpartisan individuals are heard.

The networks compare unfavorably to many other media, notably PBS. The authors say that the "single most troubling finding" is the "massive chasm between what the campaigns say ... and what citizens learn about those campaigns from the networks." The vested interests themselves - the candidates and campaigns - manage to do a better job than the networks in responding to citizen demand for quality information. All candidates are framed by the media, and these simple media-created frames, however injudiciously constructed, tend to endure throughout campaigns in place of matters of substance: in effect, simple, often silly, frames reduce sweat for lazy journalists.

Over time, audiences have been told more and more about who is ahead in the polls and who is behind, rather than where candidates stand on the issues. Viewers consequently appear to know more about the races than about the issues. Even the principles of polling seem poorly understood by many journalists so that the one thing that newscasts do concentrate on, the contest, is often based on unreliable evidence. Viewers tend to support in greater numbers the candidate who reporters say is winning. A band-wagon effect makes it easier for the candidates who hold a lead to keep that lead, although sometimes front-runners attract more media scrutiny, which may turn negative. …