The debate over the media's fairness during presidential elections is a consistent topic for both pundits and journalists every four years. However, charges of media bias may be heightened this year partially due to the increase in the sheer quantity of news outlets and new technologies bringing information directly to voters.
While the media has always set the tone for presidential campaign narratives, the increased amount of news coverage during this election also includes a spectrum of views about the press itself, says Ellen Shearer, director of the Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
“There's more noise,” she notes.
Some of that anti-media clamor has been generated by campaign personnel and supporters of the Democratic and Republican candidates, who have been quick to blame the press for what they see as slanted reporting.
The Washington Post reported on an October 10 Republican town-hall meeting in Waukesha, WI, focusing on the frustration shared by attendees, who reportedly had a “disdain for the media” equal to that for their political opponents.
One attendee reportedly said that Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) supporters are not angry, but frustrated, telling a reporter, “It might have something to do with you guys,” according to the Post. The paper also reported that the pro-McCain crowd shouted obscenities at reporters, with one attendee shouting a racial epithet at an African-American employee of a news network.
The GOP campaign itself has also fired directly at the mainstream press. Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) herself blamed the tenor of CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric's questions for a “less-than-successful interview with kinda mainstream media.” In widely reported comments, McCain senior advisor Steve Schmidt claimed The New York Times was acting as an instrument of Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) camp.
However, most seasoned journalists are used to the charges. Criticism of the media, though standard fare for news outlets during this election, has been part of campaign messaging for the past three decades, says Bob Steele, senior faculty member for ethics at the Poynter Institute. And while the media itself has changed – due to the financial issues papers face and the new media landscape – the issue of the media's role in the campaign narrative is par for the course, says Shearer.
“Journalism taking place on more platforms these days heightens the role and impact [of] journalists,” says Steele. “It's part of the discussion... There's no doubt it's woven into the fabric. And that's not inappropriate.”
Yet unlike past presidential campaigns, when candidates focused all of their attention on print, broadcast, and radio, they now have the opportunity to provide information directly to the public, without a filter, via digital technologies from text messaging to Facebook groups.
“So far, I'd give the press a good grade,” says Shearer. “It's the duty of traditional journalists to adapt to the technology.”
The growing media space, including the Web and all digital platforms, heightens the role the media plays, as well as news about the politicians. However, those seeking office are savvy enough to utilize the same platforms as the media, allowing them to bypass the traditional outlets. This was highlighted during Obama's decision to announce his running mate to supporters by text message.
That increase in the use of personal technology could affect how voters take in information, while they also break down the media's coverage, says Shearer, who adds that time-intensive investigative reporting may also be sacrificed for expediency.
Thus, the way some media outlets report on the campaign – no longer from the bus with the candidates – may also contribute to the way the mainstream media's coverage is interpreted.
“It's the changing nature of political coverage,” she says.