Whose Side Is the Media On in Politics?

When you're trying to figure out what's going on and which candidate to support, you may wonder whether the media reporting on candidates and issues is reliable. Does the media choose sides in elections? Is the reporting objective? Can you trust what you read in newspapers and see on the nightly news? Is the media there to assist you in making an informed choice on Election Day, or is it just another obstacle to making that informed choice?

The answer to each of these questions is a little of both. Many people don't have much faith these days in the media. According to some polls, Americans like the press as a profession only slightly more than used-car dealers and slightly less than the politicians the press covers. Television reporters are seen as more trustworthy than print journalists, perhaps because they appear in person in people's living rooms every night. All in all, journalism is not currently a profession that moms and dads urge their offspring to enter.

Taking the good with the bad

In reality, journalism is no different from any other profession. There are good and bad reporters. There are lazy reporters and energetic reporters. Some reporters are smart, and some aren't so smart. Some reporters like some candidates and dislike others. Some reporters can't help rooting for the underdog and bend over backward to help give that candidate coverage (they call it leveling the playing field). There are reporters who like to be schmoozed by important people, including candidates and officeholders — if these reporters are treated right, they treat the candidates right.

The media is a cross section of America, the good and the bad. Reporters are no better or worse than any other groups of citizens. Most of them try to cover campaigns fairly to the best of their abilities. They try as much as possible to leave their own personal prejudices at the newsroom door. Some reporters try harder than others, and some are more successful than others in getting that done.

There is such a thing as being too objective

A problem with many journalists is that they try to be too objective. Hold on, you might say — it isn't possible for a journalist to be too objective. It's like a judge being too fair or a minister being too kind.

Perhaps you think that reporters should not filter the election news you receive — you want to get it all without any editing or commentary. Maybe you feel that you are better equipped to make judgments about the candidates and the issues if you have just the facts, all the facts, and nothing but the facts. You may want the reporters to keep their judgments and opinions out of your news. If they have opinions or viewpoints, they should be columnists, not news reporters.

When reporters try to be too evenhanded in their campaign coverage, they give each candidate equal time. The ideas and responses of both the candidates are given identical weight in the news story. The reporter writes a story saying that Candidate Anderson said the following about Candidate Baily. Candidate Baily responded by saying the following about Candidate Anderson. Sounds okay so far. Sounds as if the reporter is doing what you want — giving you the facts so you can make a judgment for yourself. The reporter is not filtering the information that you're receiving. You're getting it just the way it happened. It's just as if you were there.

The problem is that you weren't there. You don't have the benefit of knowing the candidates personally. You probably won't be as familiar with the issue and the facts as the reporter covering the campaign. You may not know that Candidate Anderson's attack is completely bogus. You may not know that the charges have no merit at all and that Candidate Anderson is just a little bit flaky. A he said/she said story is merely a reporter's regurgitation of the charges and countercharges made by the candidates or the campaigns. The reporter doesn't evaluate the charges or tell you that the issues raised by one or both of the candidates are without merit and that voters should disregard them.

Some reporters don't necessarily do an independent evaluation when a candidate makes an accusation. They feel a responsibility to report what the opposition says in answer to a charge or attack in a campaign, but that's the extent of their duty as they see it. They may not perform an investigation of the underlying facts and charges to determine for themselves and for you which has more merit, the attack or the response. They may leave the responsibility of providing the other side to the opponent, who no doubt will tell voters that if the charges are untrue or unfair.

The problem with reporters who maintain this kind of objectivity is that you lose. If the reporters don't provide any independent evaluation of the facts, you are left to sort between the charges and countercharges to find out which is true. But you, the voter, are handicapped; you may not have ready access to the information that's available to reporters. It's much more difficult for you to do an independent evaluation to determine the truth than it is for a trained professional reporter.

Knowing the truth enables you to make an informed choice. You don't want to be manipulated into voting for a candidate who doesn't share your views and values. You don't want your support going to a candidate who has suckered you into supporting her by making unfair attacks on the opposition. You want the candidate who is right for you. Knowing the facts allows you to vote for that candidate and have confidence in your decision.

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