Professors Turn Critical Eye on Presidential Media Coverage

Posted: January 3, 2011 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: December 29, 2010 at 10:18 am

By James Greif

Richard Farnsworth

A new edition of “The Nightly News Nightmare” by two Mason communication professors criticizes media outlets for their habit of treating presidential elections like sporting events, with a heavy emphasis on who is ahead in the polls.

In the third edition of the book, authors Stephen J. Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter analyze media coverage of U.S. presidential elections from 1988 through 2008. The first edition covered 1988−2000, and the second edition covered 1988−2004.

“Something is very wrong with election coverage when the one-liners are on the evening news and the serious discussions are on Leno and Letterman,” the authors state in the book, referring to the television entertainment programs “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “Late Show with David Letterman.”

“With rights come responsibilities, and this is true not only for citizens, but also for the ‘fourth estate.’ Why should [citizens] take the trouble to vote when, judging from what is reported, it looks as if there are no important issues and none of the candidates deserve your attention, much less your respect?” the authors ask.

Robert Lichter

While the media coverage of the 2008 general election campaign improved in a number of areas compared to previous elections, the authors found that reporters were less even-handed than they had been in the previous five elections.

“When you look at television news, where we have a long-term comparison, Barack Obama had the best coverage of any major party nominee going back to 1988,” Farnsworth says. “The media really loved Barack Obama. This was true during the primary phase and during the general election phase of the campaign.”

Farnsworth notes that the business of politics is contentious and the realities of governing will grind down even media darlings or popular presidents — and President Obama is certainly experiencing this phenomenon right now.

“Presidents are treated pretty critically in the media, and most coverage is twice as negative as it is positive,” Farnsworth says. “If you compare Obama to other presidents, the coverage during his second year in office is about the same as everyone else. But right now the coverage of Obama is much more critical than during the 2008 campaign.”

Lichter explains that the change in coverage regarding Obama has to do with the reality of governing compared to the idealism of a campaign.

“Promises run into political reality. All campaign promises should come with a disclaimer of ‘as long as Congress lets me do this.’ The system is set up to make it hard to get things through.  It’s a matter of poor execution rather than misleading the voters.”

Farnsworth explains that, like any business, the media respond to audience preferences — and audiences prefer conflict.

“The most extreme view has a significant media payoff,” he says. “Television likes a good story, someone who is a little different, a little eccentric and who has something to say. If you have someone who can weigh both sides of an issue, that doesn’t make for a good story. The way you get on television news is to be louder and more extreme than everyone else.”

“Politicians and journalists both contribute to the problem of polarization,” Lichter says. “The media is always looking for conflict and picking up on the most negative aspects of the political system. And this focus on conflict is in itself, polarizing.”

The authors also argue that the politicians didn’t really appreciate the depth of the problems facing the economy in the last presidential election, and the media followed suit.

“Media have a tough time covering the economy,” Farnsworth says. “People don’t understand the magnitude of what’s going on or understand the solutions. The idea that we can somehow have tax cuts, help people who are unemployed and have a balanced budget all at the same time isn’t very realistic, and the media haven’t really covered this political reality sufficiently.”

With newsmagazines and newspapers shrinking both in number and in content, Farnsworth believes that the public gets a much cheaper version of journalism as the result. With new technology, individuals can be journalists and fill the gap. However, that poses its own set of problems.

“New media can play a part in keeping traditional media honest, as they did with CBS News and the story about President George W. Bush’s National Guard records. However, there is no real quality control, and a lot of people who say they are journalists are really partisans or not that well trained. It’s hard for consumers to figure out what is valuable and what is not because there is just so much material.”

Farnsworth says that he and Lichter wrote the book because they think the media need to be held accountable to their audiences and there needs to be someone to “watch the watchers.”

“I would love for this book to help people to be smarter consumers of media and government. There are tendencies in the mainstream media to skew toward the trivial,” Farnsworth says. “But if the public calls for higher quality news, media outlets will deliver it.”

The authors hope the analysis in the book fuels journalists to push media outlets to tackle issues of greater substance and produce a higher quality product.

“Strong democracies need a strong media,” Farnsworth says. “Staying financially viable and relevant is important for the media and important for democracy as well.”

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