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Nieman fellows want a revolt against the 'he-said, she-said'

DISCUSSIONS | June 13, 2006

Some distinguished reporters and editors have clear priorities and sharp suggestions on how to improve political coverage in 2006. Among them: Cover issues, set the agenda, don’t fall for ploys, keep an eye on all the mechanics of voting that can be tampered with.

By Barry Sussman and Dan Froomkin
Nieman Watchdog editor and deputy editor

Some veteran American journalists see the 2006 elections as offering the press a momentous opportunity to revolt against the status quo of spoonfed soundbites and he-said, she-said coverage.

Read posts from:

Responding to a one-question, e-mail survey from the Nieman Watchdog Project, some of these journalists, Nieman fellows of past years, urged reporters to: 

  • Cover issues rather than events, and report on those issues consistently and deeply enough to bring clarity to readers or viewers.
  •  Set agendas based on issues that are important to the public and aggressively pursue responses from candidates.
  • Expose political ploys, rather than fall for them.
  • Pay extra attention this year to how the votes are counted.

In all, 28 Nieman alumni from the United States responded by email during the first two weeks of May to this question:

“Do you have any practical suggestions for improving American political coverage in 2006? (For starters, if it helps: Is the press too adversarial, not adversarial enough; what were the biggest shortcomings of 2004 and how can they be avoided this time?)”

Here are some highlights:

Nancy Webb, 1984 Nieman fellow, now a writer and free-lance journalist: “It will take a courageous and independent media leader to break the pattern and refuse to air soundbites or print campaign statements or take pictures at staged photo ‘opportunities’. How a candidate campaigns is not a valid indicator of how he or she would govern, yet the campaign is what gets most media attention. Media, generally, have been too passive and accommodating, allowing candidates at all levels to announce policy intentions yet refuse to provide substantial detail, or support how such policies could realistically be legislated or implemented.”

Melvin Mencher, 1953 Nieman, professor emeritus at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism: “Candidates for Congress too often are given a free ride by superficial local coverage that amounts to rewriting news releases and he-said, she-said reporting and claim, counter-claim journalism. Before journalists can inform the public, they need to inform themselves about the issues that should be debated by the candidates. Because of uninformed coverage, reporters allow candidates for the House and Senate to define the issues. This kind of denotative reporting is satisfactory at a low level, but inadequate. Reporters need to put on the agenda the issues they conclude are important to the public and aggressively pursue responses.”

Valerie Hyman, 1987 Nieman, a news consultant and trainer: “Halt the he-said, she-said coverage.  It's insufficient, lazy, and sheds no light on important issues. Instead of spending time getting reaction quotes, test the veracity and authenticity of the original statement.  Journalists are under no legal obligation to provide equal space and/or time to opposing candidates. We ARE obliged, however, to expose and illuminate and provoke discussion of critical matters.”

Karl Schoenberger, 1995 Nieman Fellow, a correspondent for the San Jose Mercury News: “The single most important thing the U.S. media could do to improve our work in 2006 would be to make the extra effort to do issues-oriented campaign coverage. We say this every time a big election comes along, but we don't have the focus – or the courage – to carry it out. We.. let the candidates buy the mind space of the reporters and editors as well as the TV-watching electorate.”

Mark Jaffe, 1997 Nieman, a reporter for Bloomberg News: “One of the real challenges is making issues and daily coverage more consistent. I know we seem to talk about this all the time - still I think we often let candidates get away with platitudes, deflections and sound bites. Granted it's easier to identify a problem than find a solution. Perhaps part of the answer is to put a dollop of that background, exposition and analysis that goes in the thumb-sucker into the dailies - when in a speech or stump appearance the candidate dredges up his or her bromides on a particular issue.”

Thrity Umrigar, 2000 Nieman fellow, a visiting professor of English at Case Western University: “I think we have to move away from the ‘sexy’ topics and do relentless pieces on hard-core issues. These can be presented in a way that still retains its human interest appeal. We can tell real stories about real people when it comes to the Iraq war, health care, immigration, the minimum wage debate, housing prices, gas prices, gay rights etc. etc.  Do not let Karl Rove (and his Democratic equivalent, if such a person exists) set the agenda – it is up to the media to set the tone and the agenda, based on what issues genuinely affect people's lives and affect the very soul of this country.”

Bruce Locklin, 1978 Nieman fellow, retired, formerly with the Bergen Record: “Much of our national reporting, both print and broadcast, seems to be coming from people who are cozy, maybe even palsy, with their subjects. Clearly, this helps with access, but it tends to make digging a lost art. I’d like to see news organizations develop strong investigative units to tackle significant topics, away from the headline of the moment. Let the pack chase today’s sensation while the diggers determine what questions need answering and then go get the answers.”

Geneva Overholser, 1986 Nieman fellow, Missouri School of Journalism/Washington, D.C., bureau: “My main concern is that we all rush to cover the same thing. We need to be using our increasingly scarce resources to cover DIFFERENT political stories. Some scandal breaks, and we all pile on, while problems arise elsewhere with no eyes on them.”

Mark Seibel, a 1992 Nieman, managing editor/international, Knight Ridder Washington, D.C. bureau: “What political coverage routinely neglects is how people actually vote and how those votes are counted. As we learned in Florida in 2000 and saw again in Ohio in 2004, the mechanics of voting may be as critical to the result as the beliefs of the people casting those votes. Journalists need to cover the voting system, with an eye toward making sure voters are able to get to the polls, cast a legal ballot and count on that ballot being tallied accurately. If that part of the system fails, then efforts to cover candidates and their positions are wasted.”

Dori J. Maynard, 1993 Nieman, president of the Robert Maynard Institute for Journalism Education: “We need to get away from relying on polls and focus groups and get back to walking in neighborhoods throughout this country, talking to people across the fault lines of race, class, gender, generation and geography. Journalists need to make sure they are talking with a diverse group of people: the shop clerk, the cab driver, the admitting nurse at the doctor’s office. Use these conversations to help make sense of the polls and focus groups.”

Some Nieman alumni were highly negative, saying the American press is damaged almost beyond repair and comparing it unfavorably with the press in other countries. One person said it could take years, even generations to recover.

The survey coincides with the second anniversary of NiemanWatchdog.org. Thirty-four Nieman fellows and alumni from other countries also took part and were asked a question dealing with perceptions and attitudes toward America. In about a week we will run a piece summarizing their views and then, over a few days, we’ll run excerpts.

Starting today and continuing for several days, we will post excerpts of the domestic responses. They will appear on the home page, right under the dotted line.

Nieman Fellowships are the oldest and best-known mid-career program for journalists in the world. Collectively, alumni represent a body of knowledge and experience that we at NiemanWatchdog.org felt could make a valuable contribution to important issues in modern journalism.

Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation, said he was “impressed with some of the specific suggestions and depth of feeling” in the responses. “There’s enough thought and content here to design some major elements of campaign coverage.”

Please don't post your comments here!
Posted by Dan Froomkin - Deputy editor, Niemanwatchdog.org
05/25/2006, 06:40 PM

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Also on NiemanWatchdog.org: Tougher political coverage needed – but does it mean an end to impartiality?
Dan Froomkin looked at media criticism in the wake of the 2004 election, and found some concern that the impartial, unemotional postwar model of mainstream journalism simply may not be up to covering the current political climate.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.