On a Sunday early last September, a National Public Radio listener wrote to NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin to voice – in no uncertain terms – dissatisfaction with coverage of the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
Specifically, the listener berated NPR for identifying the trade and NAFTA positions of most of the candidates, but not those of U.S. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.
“What a glaring omission NPR,” she wrote. “Dennis Kucinich is running for president as a Democrat, and I insist you cover his candidacy. You didn’t mention Mosley Braun either. … NPR, you have a responsibility to cover all the candidates. Report the news, all of it.”
She was not alone. Dvorkin responded that dozens of listeners had asked why there was not equivalent coverage of all nine candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president prior to the winnowing process that accompanies the caucuses and primary elections. But equal radio time for all nine candidates in all election stories is “often a practical impossibility,” Dvorkin wrote.
Whether it’s precious air time or limited column inches, journalists covering the 2004 campaign for presidency have faced a difficult challenge: When there are myriad voices clamoring to be heard, what’s the best way to get beyond the 15-second sound bite and the made-for-headlines talking points? How can journalists best cover a large field of candidates in ways that are fair to them, useful to the electorate and, simply put, practical?
“This is a big challenge for us and particularly in Iowa, where the process begins,” said David Yepsen, Des Moines Register political reporter and 30-year veteran of covering politics. “And there’s no easy answer.”
SO MANY VOICES, SO LITTLE TIME
Candidates, campaign workers and even media consumers can be quick to criticize if they perceive there is uneven or unequal coverage given to candidates. But an irrefutable fact remains: There are only so many staff hours in a day, so many inches in a newspaper, so many minutes – if not seconds – on the air.
“It’s a difficult problem, given the reality,” said Jane Singer, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Iowa whose students followed the process closely during a class in political reporting last fall. “It’s an issue. You have to live in a news hole. There are other things that have to go in it, too. How much space do you give the candidates? A larger issue is how much space do you give to politics? And how much space do you give a year before most people will tune in?”
If anything, says Carl Leubsdorf, Washington bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, the problem is getting worse with multiple candidates, fewer resources, less space and shorter reader attention spans.
Reporters routinely make judgments about what is – and what isn’t – a story, and they shouldn’t abrogate that responsibility, journalists say. With the public expectation that journalists will sort the wheat from the chaff, they say, protest candidates and minor candidacies simply can’t be covered in the same fashion as the campaigns of viable candidates.
If the process of making coverage judgments falls heavily on newspaper reporters with limited space, it falls even heavier on commercial broadcast reporters who face a dual dilemma: limited time and a viewership with its collective thumb on the remote control.
“It’s a two-sided sword for broadcasters,” said Harriet Lange, president and executive director of the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, which represents 230 commercial and noncommercial radio and television license holders in the state. “Broadcasters want to do a more in-depth job, but they’re limited by what their audience wants.”
Even National Public Radio, known for longer-form coverage, necessarily makes decisions about coverage of political news events. When six of the Democratic hopefuls participated in a two-hour NPR debate in Des Moines on Jan. 6, the reporter covering the event was limited to six minutes – and that was about triple what would be typical for commercial broadcasting.
“Six minutes of air time to report on a two-hour debate – you can’t fit six candidates into that,” said NPR’s Neal Conan, who moderated the debate. “But they’re paid to make news judgments. That’s their job.”
These arguments give media carte blanche to divide presidential contenders into first- and second-tier candidates based on perceptions of successful outcomes, charges Kucinich campaign press secretary David Swanson. What’s worse, he and others say, is that journalists’ decisions about which candidates are headed for success are based, not on in-depth analysis of issues and policies, but on inconsequential factors that are easier to quantify: poll standings, fund raising, media buys and political endorsements. Candidates thought to have a better chance of winning – or at least of winning the nomination – are covered more extensively than candidates thought to be less viable, which results in widely disparate coverage that greatly favors the frontrunner to the detriment of candidates the media have labeled as “fringe” or “vanity” candidates.
“We saw the labeling very early on,” Swanson said. “There’s viable and vanity, there’s mainstream and fringe.”
But like the chicken and the egg, critics argue, candidates who don’t get media coverage can’t improve their standing enough to meet the definition of “first-tier” candidates in the minds of today’s political reporters.
In addition, candidates who are dismissed by the media cannot get their messages to the electorate, thus eliminating the possibility that they can influence the national political discourse even if they do not win the nomination.
Take, for example, the candidacy of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1988. “He was very successful in getting heard, and his message influenced the platform,” said the University of Iowa’s Singer. “His message got incorporated into the grand scheme, even though he wasn’t electable. Carol Moseley Braun is not getting the nomination, but she wants it to be acceptable that a woman can run for the highest office in the land, and she’s a very articulate spokesperson for issues important to her. If we write off people as not electable, we are writing off people and their message. And that is harmful to the democratic process.”
If covering a large field of candidates has been a challenge in 2004, it’s a challenge with historical roots. The number of Democratic candidates who went into the caucus- and primary-election season in 2004 – typically defined as starting with the Iowa caucuses – is not unusual compared with the same point in the process in earlier presidential races. For example, seven out of nine Democratic candidates participated in the debate sponsored by the Des Moines Register in early January. As point of comparison, six out of seven Republican candidates participated in the Register’s first presidential debate in 1980. Eight Democratic candidates participated in the newspaper debate in 1984, six Republicans and six Democrats participated in 1988, and nine Republicans participated in 1996.
But it’s not the job of the journalist to level the playing field so multiple candidates in a race can be heard equally, says Walter Mears, longtime Associated Press political reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1976 presidential campaign.
“It’s up to the candidates to rise above the group,” he said. “That’s how you get from being an anonymous candidate like Dean or Carter or Bill Clinton, for that matter, to becoming a major national force†– if not president, at least a national player. It’s not up to us to make sure that happens. Our job is to report what they are doing, what they’re saying, what they’re accomplishing. Their job is to do.”
RISING ABOVE THE GROUP
Even with a multitude of campaigns and limited media resources, today’s political candidates have ample opportunity to be heard, political journalists maintain.
“The media have been extraordinarily serious this year” in providing a variety of contexts for candidates to get their messages to the electorate, says NPR’s Conan, whose two-hour national call-in show, “Talk of the Nation,” provides a longer format for discussion of political issues. “And the candidates have been diligent in getting their own messages out.”
Indeed, national magazines, national newspapers and other newspapers throughout the country publish special election sections, voter guides, in-depth profiles, issues stories and candidate grids. C-SPAN, other cable television channels, commercial broadcasting and public broadcasting all provide different contexts in which candidates can make their stands known to the electorate. The Internet offers an abundance of opportunities to provide political information ranging from candidates’ Web sites to archival election information provided by traditional news organizations with online counterparts.
Much of the coverage, such as candidate grids in the newspaper and live broadcast debates, offer side-by-side comparisons of candidates and their stands, political journalists maintain. But that said, the sheer number of candidates can affect how much time or space is devoted to each.
This year, for example, seven of the nine Democratic hopefuls opted to participate in the debate sponsored by the Des Moines Register. “The problem was that candidates don’t get enough time, so we expanded it to two hours,” Yepsen said. “That’s a bladder-busting proposition, but we needed more time for candidates to say things. If people don’t like it, they have the remote, and they can move on. We’re making the assumption that people who care about it will stay with it.”
The issue of whether people care is a constant undercurrent as news organizations make decisions on how to allocate the resources that are available. The problem is exacerbated, journalists say, because events that happen more than a year before the election have become increasingly influential on the outcome, leaving news organizations caught in a double bind: expending limited resources on a large field of candidates who may or may not be viable at a time when few people are paying attention.
ROOM TO IMPROVE
Still, campaign-watchers say, political coverage could be improved when more journalists show a willingness to ignore issues that are fast and easy to cover but don’t contribute to an elevated level of public discourse.
“There’s extensive coverage of polls, money, endorsements, hair cuts, wardrobes, diet, the internal workings of campaigns,” said Kucinich press secretary Swanson. “Media outlets are skimping on the expense of serious, in-depth reporting. It’s cheaper and quicker to report the fluff stuff.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was among newspapers that published in-depth profiles on the candidates early in the campaign season so readers could make independent judgments before the crush of the caucuses and primary elections. Among other political coverage, it also is publishing a series of issue stories that attempt to distinguish among the candidates and their viewpoints.
That approach is not prohibitively resource-intensive even when smaller newspapers with fewer staff try to cover nine candidacies, says Mike King, public editor of the Journal-Constitution. Rather than giving readers a steady diet of the tactical workings of the day-to-day campaigns, even smaller newspapers can find solid analytical pieces that delineate candidates’ stands on important issues.
“It’s out there,” he said. “You just have to look for it.”
But too often, King and others say, news organizations focus on who’s-ahead-today horserace polling and fund-raising stories – funneling precious resources away from critical campaign issues and covering aspects of the race that are of little interest to the reader. Horserace polling could be all but ignored, King says, and substantive issue pieces could replace the fund-raising stories.
“But when the field is large, you write weekly stories about who’s raising so much money,” he said. “It makes politics a spectator sport rather than a participatory sport. You start whittling away candidates in peoples’ minds when you report that they are in seventh place for fund raising. Then people don’t listen to what they have to say.”
If anything, political journalists say, fund-raising and horserace stories, which can change from day to day, could be relegated to inside pages rather than Page One where they take on a make-or-break, win-or-lose urgency.
But a fundamental problem is that journalists faced with the challenge of covering a field of nine candidates – or 133 as was the case of the gubernatorial recall race in California last October – revert to practices they know best. And they know how to write about who’s winning, says press critic Jay Rosen, chairman of the Department of Journalism at New York University.
“Reporters who can only concentrate on two or three candidates are really saying ‘only two or three candidates have a chance to win, so that’s all we want to discuss,’ “ he said. “But why would that be? We don’t say ‘we can only have nine football teams, and there are 26 in the NFL so what are we going to do?’ The idea that there’s not enough space and time comes from another direction.”
Rosen says the idea that there’s not enough space and time comes partly from a lack of appreciation that 70 percent of Americans – more than the number who will vote – have regular access to the Internet.
In addition to providing a platform where all nine candidates can have unlimited space to explain their ideas, the Internet is providing a forum where rich and deep participatory political discourse is taking place among people, including Webloggers like Rosen, who exchange information and ideas that often are based on the work of journalists.
Instead, predictable, repetitious coverage of media buys, fund raising and the behind-the-scenes workings of the campaigns has become the news industry’s “master narrative” that has evolved in the past 50 years since the advent of media consultants and media-driven campaigns, Rosen says. But when reporters are redeployed from that standard campaign journalism, he says, resources will be available for covering the “idea race,” in which the candidate who is “ahead” is the one who can address the nation’s problems, develop new solutions and spell out policies. Conversely, candidates with well-organized campaigns who may have been identified as “viable” in the traditional sense may not have original or innovative messages that merit constant repetition.
“Who’s ahead in addressing the realities facing the country? If you decide that this was part of good coverage, you’d have every warrant for covering nine candidates because they might have good ideas,” he said. “A candidate may have great ideas and no money. But what is the campaign for? Exclusively to narrow the field to two? Or is it an occasion when Americans discuss politics?”
Understanding that discussion, especially when the field of candidates is large, will help newspapers focus their campaign coverage, says Michael Arrieta-Walden, public editor at The Oregonian.
But industrywide, Arrieta-Walden and others say, newspapers must do a better job of determining just what issues readers want to discuss. Especially with a large field of candidates, knowing what those specific issues are will help journalists tailor coverage that is both practical for their newspapers and meaningful to their readers.
“Now you are whiplashed from day to day on whatever the story is,” said Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism. “Focus on issues voters say they care about. That could cut down on some of the chaos in such a large field.”
Solid explanatory journalism that clearly lays out the complexities of the national and international issues facing voters is the necessary first step, Schaffer said. Then, she and others say, by expending some resources to find out what is important to readers, journalists can force candidates to address those issues and provide readers with a better opportunity to compare and contrast their positions and polices. Newspapers without the resources to cover the national campaign can use the same tactic by soliciting reader input and combing outside resources – wire services and the Internet, for example – for appropriate coverage and links to additional information.
That process is underway as newspapers throughout the country have been gearing up to cover the 2004 presidential campaign. With echoes of public journalism tools of the 1990s, determining what readers want may involve asking them to fill out questionnaires or, as is the case with The Oregonian’s Arrieta-Walden and others, asking a pre-selected group of readers via e-mail what they want to see in presidential campaign coverage.
The Florida Times-Union was among the first group of newspapers in the country to be involved in an e-mail interactive project designed to encourage and solicit reader involvement in news coverage, says Mike Clark, reader advocate for the paper. As a result, Clark has a database of 620 readers who will be sent e-mail asking, among other things, what issues should be covered in the presidential election. Their responses will be used locally and combined with responses from other readers in the United States as part of a national project conducted under the auspices of the Associated Press Managing Editors.
What is required, Clark says, is an understanding that “the way we’ve always done it” in the past may not provide the best coverage now or in the future.
For example, he says, the 50 constitutional amendments that will be on the Florida ballot this fall present newspapers with the hopelessly impossible task of adequately covering them all. Instead, Clark says, newspapers throughout the state could form a consortium, possibly through The Associated Press, in which each would specialize in a manageable number of amendments and share their coverage with the others.
Would that idea work with a field of nine candidates vying for a party’s nomination?
“Why not? A lot has to do with the will to do something, rather than the resources,” Clark said. “There are ways to find resources. We find lots of ways to adapt – when it’s our idea.”
Bonnie Bressers is an assistant professor of journalism at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.