Questioning the proper role of the political reporter


Instapundit points to an interesting column by Jay Rosen, from the Columbia Journalism Review, outlining how the true job description for a journalist covering an election has changed.

Whenever we re-describe what journalists do new problems arise in what they should be doing -- and perhaps quit doing. New questions of accountability spring up.
A conventional, common sense description of the job during campaign season would look like this:
  • Cover what the candidates are doing and saying as they compete for support;
  • Dig into their backgrounds and explain where they come from, where they stand;
  • Track the progress of the race and factors that go into winning it, like fundraising;
  • Examine the major issues in the campaign, showing where the candidates stand;
  • Pose tough questions that illuminate the issues and hold actors to account;
  • Offer analysis and commentary for additional background and context;
  • Sometimes feature voters and their views as they make up their minds.

One of the new roles taken on by journalists is that of screener of candidates, in the absence of a meaningful role for the political parties any more. [For further thought and discussion: Why is that, and is that a good thing?]

[Paul Taylor] noted that with the decline of the political parties as screeners with the final say, journalists have increasingly become players in a political contest in which they also serve as observers, commentators and referees. One of the ways they influence things, he said, is through a journalistic master narrative built around two principal story lines: the search for a candidate's character flaws, and the depiction of the campaign as a horse race.

This helps explain why the Dean Scream grew to such proportions as a news event from January 20th on. Yes, the scream really happened, and it really did turn people off. It is not implausible to say it crystallized public doubts about Dean, for some. But we also know that the master narrative favors a search for the candidate's character flaws. The Scream said to reporters: search over, flaw found.

Beyond screening the field and maintaining a master narrative, there are other recognizable tasks not in the official description:

  • establishing the figure of the “frontrunner” and its rituals of scrutiny;
  • previewing the get-elected strategy of candidates and reviewing it as performance;
  • conducting polls, by formulating the questions to be asked, paying for the research, and publicizing the results as news;
  • moderating and sometimes sponsoring candidate debates, which means selecting who belongs in them;
  • creating a class of “authorized knowers” who are repeatedy quoted and asked to comment on the campaign;
  • enlarging some unexpected or dramatic moment (or gaffe) with a flood of news attention and repetition of the event;

Then there's everything the press does during those strange episodes that have come to be called frenzies. Here the news cycle feeds on itself, overwhelming all other news, and bringing a sense of siege or crisis to the stricken one's camp. (The scream aired 700 times in the week after Dean released it.) Producing frenzies isn't an official part of the job. But it happens and journalists know they are involved....

What does the code book say about the proper way to handle yourself in a frenzy? It is silent, stumped. What do newsroom codes say about the expectations game and how journalists should play it, so that citizens benefit? They say nothing. If all of a sudden you realize you are driving an event, what should the wise, responsible and public-spirited journalist do? The codes don’t know.

Go read the whole thing including the comments, one of which deserves a special mention in the next entry.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 12, 2004 11:51 PM.

More about District 3 court decision was the previous entry in this blog.

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