JP Observer: Major media’s bad election coverage habits

You can feel them warming up all over the state, as well as here in Jamaica Plain. The creaky gears begin to turn, fuel starts to flow… The political machines are getting ready for the election campaigns that will lead us to fall.

If it’s 2014, it must be time for state elections in the fall, this one including constitutional offices of governor, etc., and all 200 seats in the Massachusetts legislature, including two senators and three representatives in JP. We will also vote to fill a U.S. Senate seat and both JP-area seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Before we are submerged in coverage of those races, it would be good to focus on some common but unwholesome practices of major media involving elections. Readers and voters would benefit if newspapers, Internet and broadcast media would change several habits.

1. Reporters and commentators too often call local elections “boring.” Columnist Tom Keane at the Boston Globe called the final mayoral contest “boring” this past fall. Columnist Yvonne Abraham talked about “abysmal turnout” predicted for the 2013 special U.S. Senate race and even used “zzzzz” to describe Ed Markey’s campaign activities—though she reminded people to vote at the end. Saying a race is dull suggests to readers that they should feel out of it for caring. It may even be self-fulfilling commentary: Say people are apathetic, and they just might neglect to vote.

2. Major media cover elections as though they are athletic events and neglect the policy stands of the candidates, as documented by The Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism. In the last week in October 2008, for example, foreign policy and the economy got a lower percentage of total presidential election coverage than predictions, fundraising and endorsements. It’s easier and takes less time for the press to report on races. But voters want and need to know the candidates and their positions on issues.

3. Following major media coverage of races can cause a person to wonder if the legislative branch got written out of all the constitutions and local charters when we weren’t looking. Media pay too much attention to elections for executive offices and way too little to those for City Council, state legislature and U.S. Congress. Once again, this coverage is easier. Elections for representation in legislative bodies, where the laws are actually crafted, deserve much more and earlier coverage.

4. Last and most obvious, mainstream newspapers and others need to stop endorsing candidates—for their own sakes as well as their followers. (Some media outlets, such as most TV stations, haven’t developed the habit, thank goodness.) It looks foolish for an editor or editorial board to vote in public. Few regular people care, and endorsements understandably cause readers to suspect that the paper’s news reporting is biased—feeding cynicism about media objectivity. Some surveys and reports have shown voters saying endorsements do not sway them. Editorial boards counter that readers just don’t want to admit they have been influenced. Perhaps newspaper folks would just miss the fun of grilling supplicants and trumpeting their choices.

Sandra Storey was the founding editor and publisher of the Gazette and lives in Jamaica Plain.

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