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A Report Card on Media Coverage of the 2008 Presidential Election (MIT Communications Forum)

09/25/2008 5:00 PM Bartos theater
Tom Rosenstiel, Project for Excellence in Journalis; John Carroll, Professor, Mass Communication, Boston University; Ellen Goodman, Columnist, The Boston Globe; Ellen Hume, Research Director, MIT Center for Future Civic Media

Description: There's anxiety, outrage, and some wistfulness in this panel devoted to weighing the strengths and weaknesses of political reporting during the current campaign season. In the age of the internet and cable news, "enormously courageous journalismis lost in the clutter," notes moderator Ellen Hume. Basic tenets of journalism fall under assault.

From his research, Tom Rosenstiel quantifies what's changing and what's not in political journalism. One enduring pattern: 65% of the news hole is dedicated to covering the campaign as horse"race (tactics, strategy), and only 20% concerns policy. This has been true for two generations, he says. Today, cable news dominates political coverage, devoting 62% of its time to the presidential election. This might be a good thing, except that "cable news has abdicated much of the time to campaign operatives and spin doctors communicating talking points," says Rosenstiel. It doesn't break stories, but supports "a conversation live, unedited, unvetted, unscripted." Talk show culture has replaced "the culture of fact," says Rosenstiel, burying original sources and documentation. This culture invites political operatives "to game the system." The press used to play the role of filter, "saying that's a lie, that's not true." Now, news consumers become their own editors, getting facts from online and traditional sources, but "Bill O'Reilly or the Daily Show tells you how to think about them."

Cable networks offer "projectile punditry," says John Carroll. "They're in sort of a verbal dance to show that 'we're still in this tribe, aren't you in our tribe, too?'" So Carroll doesn't think cable networks "change anyone's minds in the least; they just reinforce attitudes." Print journalism continues to deliver real political stories, but their impact is lost in the 16"hour news cycle, which every campaign attempts to win. This means "whatever hits has immediate but no lasting impact. The news media to me is a like a self"cleaning oven: something comes along, you bake it, serve it, clean the oven, bring in the next recipe and serve that." Candidates can take advantage of this, bypassing or discrediting media entirely. The assignment desk for national political discourse used to be The New York Times or The Washington Post. Now, says Carroll, it's just as likely to be YouTube, Politico or Jon Stewart.

Cable stations engage in the equivalent of food fights, says Ellen Goodman. Just as European newspapers have distinct political leanings, cable channels are developing political identities, so "Republicans go to Fox, committed Democrats go to MSNBC...." With this campaign, race and gender are driving the narrative, "framing the stories of this campaign -- literally." In the past, women have not been news consumers to the degree men have, notes Goodman, but "when women are running, women pay more attention." The affinity groups and tribalism generate a lot of heat, as Goodman attests: "People email stuff you wouldn't believe, that they'd never say to you -- but it's OK to email."

About the Speaker(s): Ellen Hume is also the Founding Editor and Publisher of the New England Ethnic Newswire and the Founding Director of the Center on Media and Society, UMass Boston. As the founding Executive Director of PBS's Democracy Project, from 1996 to 1998, she developed special news programs that encouraged citizen involvement in public affairs. She oversaw PBS's 1996 and 1998 election coverage, creating PBS Debate Night, a nationally televised Congressional leadership debate, as well as local candidate debates on PBS stations across the country. She also created Follow the Money, PBS's weekly television and Web series on the role of money in American politics. At PBS, she developed "resource journalism," a multimedia approach to news coverage.

Hume has more than 30 years of experience as a reporter and analyst for American newspapers, magazines and television. She was a White House and political correspondent for The Wall Street Journal from 1983 to 1988, and a Washington"based national reporter with the Los Angeles Times from 1977 to 1983.

Hume was a Senior Research Fellow at UMass Boston (2003"2008). From 1988 to 1993, she served as Executive Director and Senior Fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum

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December 15, 2011 13:04
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