1. Life & Culture

What can be learned from media coverage of 2012 election

[object Object]
Published Nov. 4, 2012

If you've been reading press coverage of the election as the final days wind down, it's hard not to wonder if some media types are starting to lose it — just a little bit.

Nate Silver, a poll expert who runs the influential FiveThirtyEight blog and writes for the New York Times, pushed back last week against widespread sniping against his methods by challenging MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough to a $2,000 bet backing his prediction of an Obama victory. (The loser would donate the money to charity.)

Donald Trump's ransomlike offer to donate $5 million to charity for President Barack Obama's college and passport records was covered by mainstream outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, CBS News and the New York Daily News.

And stories after each presidential debate seemed increasingly focused on minutiae circulating through social media such as bayonets and binders full of women.

"It certainly brings about a feeling of exhaustion," said Dylan Byers, who covers media for POLITICO, noting the Internet-fueled 24/7 news cycle has increased the flow of stories and pushed journalists hard this election season. "Because of how fast the media moves now, there's greater demand for news coverage than there are stories. People are going to look back, and perhaps wish they had spent more time on bigger pieces with greater impact."

The truth is, it has been a long election season — for journalists and media consumers. But along the way, I've learned a few things about how the current jangle of media outlets works in covering the biggest political event in the world.

Here's my list of what I've learned about politics and media in this election.

1Social media smartens up and dumbs down the coverage. This emerged sharply during the debates. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr made instant analysis available as news organizations sent out messages with their reporting on issues such as oil and gas exploration or tax policy within moments of each candidate speaking on the issue.

We also saw entire news cycles dominated by talk about empty chairs, Big Bird and binders full of women, courtesy of the Internet's ability to turn any kinetic public moment into a snarkily entertaining message.

Still, POLITICO's Byers had an interesting take, noting that the fixation on Mitt Romney's offhand debate remark on consulting "binders full of women" for job hires in Massachusetts eventually brought public discussion back to women's issues.

"Do I think 'binders full of women' was the most substantive thing said during the debate? No, obviously not," Byers added. "Is it worthwhile to have a conversation about equality in the workplace? Absolutely."

2The political press has a tough time putting issues on the national news agenda if neither candidate wants to talk about them. Critics pointed out that the presidential campaigns and even the televised debates missed addressing a host of important issues, from the rise of poverty rates during the recession to questions on climate change, pollution and the environment.

But the media seem to have a limited ability to jump-start such talk itself.

Richard Prince, author of an online column centered on multicultural media issues called Journal-isms, said few media outlets have looked at how Romney might distance himself from controversial older Mormon tenets on race or the truth in charges Obama hasn't sufficiently addressed problems of race and people of color.

"We're not hearing much about urban issues or these other issues," Prince said. "It's as if (they) sort of got pushed off the table."

3News consumers don't just want fact-checking, they want truth-checking. As the editors at the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact website can attest, there has been a healthy debate during this election cycle about the efforts of fact-checkers — particularly when they deliver a verdict lots of people don't like.

Fact-checkers' travails often demonstrate that "truth" can be much harder to verify or determine than "facts" — a reality some critics are too quick to dismiss.

Facts can be easier to verify. But judging what a collection of facts means often requires making a judgment call — embodied in PolitiFact's handy Truth-O-Meter ratings — which can be a more open question.

That's why CNN anchor Candy Crowley got so much flak for correcting Romney during the second presidential debate, saying that Obama did use the phrase "act of terror" one day after an attack in Libya, contrary to the GOP challenger's claim.

The truth was that the administration also kept implying the attack was connected to a public protest days after Obama's words, leading PolitiFact to give Romney a "Half True" rating for a claim that would seem an easier call.

What also seems true is that this campaign cycle has seen the full flowering of partisan news outlets such as MSNBC and Fox News, along with online sources such as Twitter, BuzzFeed, Tumblr and more.

"A lot of these news outlets have come into their own," Byers said. "So there's going to be a desire to break free; do something different than how people have done it before. That's what's next."