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Public Journalism Ideals Can Help 2008 Election Coverage

When Charlotte Grimes took an in-depth look at Public Journalism back in 1999, she wrote:

The defining event for civic journalism is usually pinned to the 1988 presidential campaign, with its fixation on horse-race polls and focus on Gary Hart’s adultery, George Bush’s visits to flag factories and Willie Horton ads, and Michael Dukakis’ ride in a tank. The campaign was a triumph of trivia, sleaze and manipulation. And it provoked an outburst of soul-searching by many journalists on their role in it.

Apparently the horse-race mentality is alive and well among the mainstream press as we move toward the 2008 presidential elections. A study produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard released this week, reveals:

In all, 63% of the campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign. That is nearly four times the number of stories about the personal backgrounds of the candidates (17%) or the candidates’ ideas and policy proposals (15%). And just 1% of stories examined the candidates’ records or past public performance, the study found.

The press’ focus on fundraising, tactics and polling is even more evident if one looks at how stories were framed rather than the topic of the story. Just 12% of stories examined were presented in a way that explained how citizens might be affected by the election, while nearly nine-out-of-ten stories (86%) focused on matters that largely impacted only the parties and the candidates. Those numbers, incidentally, match almost exactly the campaign-centric orientation of coverage found on the eve of the primaries eight years ago.

And what do the people want:

…the public says it wants from campaign reporting. A new poll by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted for this report finds that about eight-in-ten of Americans say they want more coverage of the candidates’ stances on issues, and majorities want more on the record and personal background, and backing of the candidates, more about lesser-known candidates and more about debates

Here is more:

Those results, taken together with the findings of the PEJ-Shorenstein study of coverage, suggest the press and the public are not on the same page when it comes to priorities in campaign coverage. This disparity also indicates there is room for the press to calibrate its coverage differently to make it more useful and possibly more interesting to citizens.

The public is also not that happy with the press coverage. A majority of Americans (53%) in September said the coverage has been only fair or poor, while 41% rate it as good or excellent, according to another Pew Research Center survey

Jay Rosen, a founder of the public journalism movement, now, along with Arianna Huffington, is giving his OfftheBus project a try. Will be interesting to see how that measures up to the mainstream media in quality of coverage of issues versus the horse-race mentality. Here is what Rosen said about the horse race in 2004.

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