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Sports journalism is hurting democracy

Political news coverage in America tends to be abysmal. Nic explores why.

Sports journalism is the main reason political coverage in American media is in its current abysmal state. Why? Because most political correspondents cover politics like they would cover sports. The focus is on the game—what do the latest opinion polls say? Who is getting traction where? What did somebody off the street say about the candidate’s last statement?

Which, to speak frankly, has bugger-all to do with the actual end result of the political process: Legislation that affects the lives of real people every day.

For an example of the disconnect between voters and the press corps, take a look at this infographic from The Boston Globe contrasting the questions asked by the press corps and those of Twitter users. Notice how the press have a lot of questions about game mechanics while voters are interested in things like, well, jobs. You know, the stuff that actually affects their lives.

This has me screaming at my TV and newspaper every election season: If I were working for a campaign I would care deeply what some poll in Maine said about public impression of my candidate. Deeply. But I don’t work for a political campaign. I’m a voter. And so are 99.99% of the people reading the story. The people who care about the game are inside the campaign bus.

In the meantime, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the important matters—like what the candidates will do if they are elected for office—are crowded out by the minutiae of the race itself.

Sure, as a voter it’s a fun frisson to feel like an insider, no denying that. But what the current campaign coverage is doing is making us feel like insiders while we’re so far outside we can barely see the damn tent and it’s making us less informed about the issues that matter while we chew the scraps of insider info.

I care deeply—and sure hope there are many others like me—about what each candidate intends to do once they get into office. That is what decides how I’m going to cast my vote.

It’s like being breathlessly told 24% of Americans like the latest Kenny G. album. What do I care? I already have an opinion on Kenny G. What anybody else cares about him matters to Kenny G., not to me. Opinion polls like this are reporting on the game itself. They don’t help anybody. They hurt democracy.

In my more cynical moments I’m reminded of how stage magic works: Redirection. Get people to watch one thing while the important thing happens somewhere else.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist: I certainly don’t think the campaign-trail correspondents are in on some nefarious scheme—they’re doing their job the best way they can under immense pressure from both the campaigns and their employers—but I do think the campaigns are deploying a whole lot of stage magic, and I do think it’s affecting campaign coverage much more than it would if correspondents didn’t put on their football fan hats.

If you cover politics, please don’t play the game and don’t get caught up in the adrenaline rush that is the inside of the bus. Focus on the candidates’ plans and personalities and leave the inside baseball for your memoirs.

I think this would do American democracy a world of good. It would also boost the public’s opinion of journalists. And as an extra bonus, there would be much less campaign coverage that’s nothing but noise.

I want to be informed, not entertained. Weird, I know.

Posted Thursday, 25 August 2011 by

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