As the Presidential race moves from the primary elections to the general election, this might be a good time to say a few words about media coverage of the candidates. Media—especially the cable news networks—coverage of the primary elections raised some questions about journalism in this era. One of the candidates, Donald Trump, has noted that the heavy media coverage that he has received as an outspoken celebrity essentially served as free advertising, allowing him to save a great deal of money on paid advertising. Similarly, CNN, in particular, seemed to favor Trump in the primaries by always ensuring that a Trump campaign surrogate was at the table when his candidacy was discussed.
The challenge for the general election period—from now through November—is to ensure that the news media function as journalists and not as either purposeful or accidental advocates of one campaign or another. Some thoughts:
· News media should refrain from showing images of the candidates every time they are being discussed. This is free advertising for the candidate, regardless of what is being said. It also distracts the viewer from attending to what the journalist or experts are saying. Keep the focus on the journalistic process and the speakers. If you must show images of the candidates in the background, given them equal time on the screen.
· CNN’s fairly regular practice of always having a candidate’s surrogate on set during analysis discussions should be avoided. The result of having surrogates constantly on set is to destroy any sense of journalistic objectivity. Instead, focus on what journalists or objective analysts have to say about the news.
· Honor the ideal of equal time.
· Refrain from carrying speeches “live.” Instead, record them, fact-check them, and then report on them. Otherwise, the news simply becomes a promotional channel for whichever candidate is talking.
· Fact-checking is a critical role for the news media in this election, given the lack of trust the the public has for either candidate. Reporters must see themselves as giving the public the truth, not just passing on gossip or name-calling. I was glad to see a bit of this on MSNBC today.
· Do side-by-side comparisons of proposed policies and positions. Show people where the candidates differ—and how they differ—and where they are the same. In other words, make policy positions important to viewers by taking them seriously.
There was a time—when network news operated within the structure of large entertainment networks—when corporate bosses kept a distance from their news operations in order to give them some credibility. This seems to have faded in today’s cable environment. This year, though, we need, more than ever, serious journalism that educates voters. Here’s hoping . . .