Thursday, September 23, 2010

Are journalists slaves to polling companies?

"At times it feels as if American politics consists largely of candidates without ideas hiring consultants without convictions to stage campaigns without content. Increasingly the result is elections without voters." –Gerald Ford

I’m a big fan of North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann. I think he’s probably the best journalist in this area. His news stories are fair (different than neutral) as well as offering a depth and nuance pretty much unseen in this region’s journalism. But one of his weaknesses is his infatuation with the horse race of politics; this blog piece where he went on about a poll regarding the NY governor’s race is a recent example. I won’t crucify him for it because his real journalism is of such quality. But as someone who’s regularly criticized the overreliance on polls that cripples modern journalism, I wish he’d tone it down a bit.

I think journalists are infatuated by polls because they are far easier to frame than more complex (and more relevant) stories about issues. The way stories about polls are framed are remarkably similar to the way stories about sports are often framed. But ESPN's hype machine aside, most sports journalists don't pass their work off as being of epic importance.

Polls really are a a crutch of modern journalism. As I’ve said before, polls can be useful when they illuminate a story or issue. Far too often, though, they ARE the story. Polls fine as the dessert – fine in small quantities, easy to digest but with little nutritional value; instead, they are usually passed off as the main course – thus we get a malnourished civic soul.

I am convinced that this is a reason why ordinary people are tuning out of politics and why they are losing respect for journalism. Nearly all the coverage, and I mean in the state media in general not just Mann's blog, of the governor’s race is based on polls; this was exacerbated when a poll was released showing the GOP’s Carl Paladino only 6 points behind Democrat Andrew Cuomo. The small rest of the gubernatorial coverage has about Paladino’s controversial personality and emails he once sent.

I’ve seen hardly anything about the FOUR other statewide races, those for attorney general, comptroller and two US Senate seats. There was a little coverage about the Democratic attorney general primary (again mostly focused on the polls and who was 'ahead') but virtually none since.

The state is in a crisis but journalists seem to think that no one’s interested in hearing ideas about how to address the crisis and that everyone's more worried about the little parlor games of polls that ignore most of the candidates anyway.

Yes, the only people talking about issues and ideas are the smaller party candidates... this is almost always how it is. But if the media is going to blacklist those smaller party candidates and perpetuate the deceit that they don't exist, don’t they at least have a responsibility to press the major party candidates to talk about real issues, not just a candidate's crude emails or lineage?

Oh wait, I have to go. A poll shows that Paladino’s popularity has increased by 0.0441 percent since 22 minutes ago. Stop the presses! I need to write a story about this Earth-shattering development!

Update: Matt Funiciello offers his take.

Second update: Curiously, the media's infatuation with polls doesn't seem to extend to the one that shows 58% of Americans think the Republicans and Democrats so inadequate that a third party is needed. Of course, there ARE 'third parties' so this means that the majority of Americans think the media should actually cover them, like is done in the media of every other democracy.

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