Improving media capacity: Media must focus on policy not just politics

Editor’s note: Recent innovations—the Internet, social platforms, and mobile devices—have upended how we receive, consume, share, and interpret the news. In this FixGov series, experts weigh in on the challenges facing the industry and discuss possible ways to enhance news coverage and improve media capacity. On May 19, senior fellow E.J. Dionne will convene a panel of top experts and practitioners to discuss how to fix the problems facing America’s Fourth Estate.

The problem with political reporting today isn’t only the communications revolution represented by the Internet and social media. The problem, at least in part, has its roots in Theodore H. White’s classic book “The Making of a President 1960.” White wrote so elegantly about the inner game of presidential politics, the tactics and maneuvering behind the scenes, that coming generations of political reporters have attempted to emulate White—in real time.

White’s books on presidential campaigns (he wrote four of them) have led to coverage that is dominated by analysis of political tactics at the expense of an examination of the more fundamental issues in a campaign. Too often the news media will note a new position by a candidate and then go on to explain the political motivation for the position but not discuss the substance of the proposal. Most political reporters are experts in the machinations of politics not the nuances of policy. Their best sources are often political consultants, the modern day Svengalis who run campaigns, create political ads and often even dictate to candidates how they should dress. And closely related to political tactics is the media’s addiction to the “horse race” aspect of a campaign. Who is ahead and who is behind too often takes the bulk of time or space devoted to campaign coverage. That’s especially true at the outset of the primary season when polling is largely measuring name recognition and is, at best, only a snapshot at a given moment, not a predictor of who will win.

Of course, White was not filing stories as he watched the 1960 campaign—his book was not published until 1961, months after the campaign. And while the book details the behind the scenes maneuvering and fascinating incidents (Richard Nixon bumped his knee getting out of a car going into the famous first televised presidential debate and did not have the proper make-up applied to his face which contributed to his sweaty, uncomfortable television image), White also analyzes the big, fundamental forces that shaped the campaign: the suburbanization of America and the decline of the cities, the growth of young and old in the population, the great migration of blacks from the south into the northern cities, the role of religion in American politics. The genre of post-election books a la White is still a staple of political journalism (see Mark Halperin and John Heilemann among many others), but much of the inside story has already been published.

In his latest book on the press and politics Thomas Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School, makes a strong case that the news media must deliver more “knowledge based” reporting, reporting based on verified information and expertise on substantive issues, and less on Washington’s squabbles and conflicts. Patterson warns that the precipitous drop in public confidence of the news media can only be remedied by a fundamental change in how reporters go about their work, especially in developing their knowledge of complex topics whether it is national health care, economics or foreign policy, to name just a few.

While I do not agree with everything Patterson has to say, the rise of the Internet and digital media in many ways has indulged political reporters’ narrow concentration on political tactics. Sites such as Politico or BuzzFeed or dozens of others are writing about the inner game 24/7 without space limitations. The cable networks also thrive on dissecting political decisions and allowing a seemingly unending flow of opinion whether it is fact based or pure palaver. There is also an addiction to political polls that follow the horse race aspect of the campaign, months and even years before the election—and long before most voters have even contemplated who they want as the next president.

But there are also terrific sites on the Internet and in traditional media that deal with the substance of issues in an informative and entertaining way. and are just two of the many sites that analyze the veracity of candidates’ statements and positions. PolitiFact runs a graphic or a meter that rates candidate’s statements as “True”, Mostly True”, “Half True”, “Mostly False”, “False”, or so false the label is “Pants on Fire.” National Public Radio consistently delivers insightful, knowledge-based reporting as do newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post. And while a successful business model has yet to emerge, both the Times and the Post reach substantially more voters than at any time in their history because of their web sites.

The reality of the Internet is that voters can find the information they need to make informed voting decisions¸ but it takes effort and a willingness to be open to information that might contradict already held beliefs. That is why we created a course in News Literacy at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Our belief is that in the digital age, a school of journalism has an obligation to teach the next generation of news consumers as well as news producers. The course is designed for all students, not just journalism students. In the last eight years we have taught the course to more than 10,000 students (see Brookings white paper on News Literacy). It’s a course that can also be taught at the high school or junior high school level. The course’s emphasis on critical thinking is right in the sweet spot of the new common core curriculum.

However, a news literacy course can only be part of that effort. The challenge remains for the news media to make voters aware that there is fact-based information available to them. Yes, the unfortunate reality is that with the Internet, voters seem to be less informed. Part of the problem is that there is so much misinformation on the Internet that voters can always find something that seems to back up their existing view. It recalls Mark Twain’s comment on the invention of the printing press: “It found truth astir on earth and give it wings, but untruth was also abroad, and it was supplied with a double pair of wings.” The digital revolution has those double wings on steroids.

As an ever-expanding election cycle goes in full motion the challenge for the news media is to provide fact based information to voters including, but not dominated by political tactics, and for voters to take advantage of the unprecedented availability of that fact based information.