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Jason Salzman

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An Anti-Election Media Bias

Posted: 11/30/10 11:55 AM ET

Why do I feel like a freak in America for loving elections?

Because most people apparently feel the opposite way about them. That is, happy that the election is finished, the ads gone, the polls stopped, the metaphorical litter off our doorsteps.

How should a journalist deal the reality that, on one hand, most Americans seem to hate politics and modern elections, but on the other hand, there are plenty of reasons some people love them: Because they're so important. Because they're such a spectacle, especially this year in Colorado. Or for the challenge they present in deciding how to vote. Or, actually, for their depth and complexity.

It's obvious that a reporter should cover the things that people hate and love about politics--to air out the anger and the issues involved.

But one thing political journalists should not do, IMHO, is make broad interpretive statements about how much Americans hate the political season, in the course of reporting stories that aren't focused on people's attitudes about the election process.

And, unfortunately, it isn't hard to find evidence of Colorado journalists doing this:

For example, during a news show before this month's election, a Fox 31 anchor turned to a political reporter and asked: "Don't you think there's going to be a collective sigh of relief when this is over, not only for the candidates but for all of us?"

Similarly, during its 10 p.m. broadcast the night before the election, 9News concluded its piece on the next day's voting with a shot of snowy mountain peaks and orange leaves falling in Denver, while the voice over stated: "After tomorrow we can get back to why we love Colorado, but I'm sorry to say that the 2012 election and those images we're sick of (image of ad with clip 'billions of new job-killing taxes') are not so far away."

The Denver Post's Spot blog lobbed a subtle and unnecessary salvo in mid-October, when it reported on a Michael Bennet event in Estes Park: "It was the kind of blue-sky, golden-leaf fall day that can kick politics far down the list of local concerns."

The underlying assumption in each of these cases is that if we don't hate politics, we certainly don't like it much, and, especially in the TV examples I found, we want the election to go away as soon as possible.

Maybe that's mostly true about Americans today, but even so, why should a reporter reinforce this anti-election attitude, in such broad terms and in news stories that have nothing to do with analyzing the election process?

Doing this amounts to an anti-election bias.

Ironically, journalists who report in this one-sided way are undermining their own jobs by turning more people off to politics and helping to convince them to change the channel when the news comes on.

It's also not in the public interest.

Asked about this via e-mail, 9News Political Reporter Adam Schrager pointed out a few of the ways that 9news' networks' election coverage serves the public interest.

He listed the "thousand-plus voter questions" posed to candidates, the series of hour-long commercial-free debates, the more than 50 "long-form analyses of political commercials," other election-related coverage, and more.

He also wrote that "voters, myself included, are frustrated because they're not shown the respect I'd argue they deserve in this process. I share that with the candidates and campaigns themselves so I don't feel like I'm being two-sided in any way."

Schrager thinks candidates and the public want elections to focus on a candidate's "merits rather than on someone else's demerits."

He wrote:

Am I frustrated with how campaigns are being run? Without question.

Am I disappointed that candidates are being taken out of context in order to make a political point? Indeed.

Most importantly, am I saddened with how Colorado voters continue to be treated without the respect they deserve by candidates and interest groups that hide in the shadows peddling half-truths, empty rhetoric and outright falsehoods? Most definitely.

I always sign my latest book, 'Democracy needs to be a participatory sport.'

There is nothing I do, either professionally or personally, that in any way turns people off to voting or 'trashes elections.'

If I may be so bold, the folks who are paying you to blog and others on both edges of the political spectrum are already accomplishing that goal nicely.

Asked about his reporting from Estes Park, Denver Post reporter Michael Booth wrote:

I'd have to say that of all the things I worried about with my reporting on politics, this was not among them. I agree that politics is policy, and people should care, and that it's silly to continue bemoaning the nastiness of elections all the time. A good fight over policy and positions is exactly what makes these things interesting. But it's also true that every time I met someone from outside the politics/journalism field, friend or new acquaintance, the first thing they said to me was, "I'm so sick of all the ads and I just want this to be over, don't you?" So there's a benefit to occasionally let readers see in print that we acknowledge their pain, and that we understand not everyone is thinking about these things 24/7. Many, many of our readers would rather know it was a beautiful fall day in Estes Park, and keep that image in their heads the rest of the day, than to know Michael Bennet was up shaking hands in an Estes Park jewelry store.

I acknowledge that my point is nitpicky, when you look at the enormous body of election coverage in, for example, the Post, and on 9News and Fox31.

And I know that journalists are right about people's dissatisfaction with politics, and there's plenty of evidence to back this up, like low voter turnout, hatred of Congress and political advertising, and a political culture that's shallow and ill-informed.

And no one wants Suzy Sunshine reporters running around saying how great the electoral process is and that everyone loves it, especially on sunny days.

We don't want to hear a reporter say: "We know you'll be sad when the election season ends tomorrow. But look on the bright side. The 2012 election is just two years away, and meanwhile Colorado is a great place to live."

So news stories addressing the dark and unpopular side of politics should be aired early and often. I definitely agree that our election process is flawed.

But the public interest isn't served when journalists make sweeping statements, in the course of covering election events, about how much we all dislike politics and the election and how happy we'll all be when it's over.

That's a form of media bias, however subtle, that could cause more destruction than liberal and conservative media bias combined.

 

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