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Point of View: In a dog-eat-dog political world, media outlets could stop chaos

Nov. 11, 2010

By Nick Dean
Editor in Chief

Christine O'Donnell was a witch and Rand Paul was a follower of Aqua Buddha and a sacrilegious Noze brother. No, these aren't Halloween costumes. They're media labels.

These labels and many more were the water cooler talk of the political realm for the campaign season that ended Nov. 2. I attended a conference this past weekend that discussed -- among other aspects of political journalism -- just how important media coverage is in the game of American politics.

Dr. Kim Meltzer, a Georgetown University journalism professor, brought up interesting topics with the collegiate journalists that were in attendance for the Institute of Political Journalism's conference in Washington, D.C. Meltzer put forward the idea that perhaps the media picks which candidates will most likely make it to the end and they frame political races as strategic, rather than policy-based, competitions.

With the wave of Republicans that has washed over Congress media were quick to label the Democrats' defeat a "bloodbath" in the political "battle" between the Democrats and Republicans.

The media use these words to frame most political stories around the strategies of campaigns, rather than around where the politicians stand on issues.

Most coverage looks to highlight strategic successes and failures of political races rather than emphasizing issues on which each candidate is speaking.

When the "battles" of media coverage are won by who pulls the best stunts, it is safe to say journalists are perpetuating a hostile political environment that rewards the outlandish and stifles the

logical.

On the media's ability to thrust a candidate closer and closer to assuming political office, Meltzer said two aspects of national politics are responsible for the media's interest in a candidate:

1) With campaign seasons elongating, journalists make decisions on which things to cover and one thing we as journalists decide is which candidates will be the legitimate contenders of the race as it gets closer to Election Day.

2) If candidates hit certain campaign fundraising points by certain times in the campaign that is a major sign of the legitimacy of a candidate.

Journalists use a combination of instinct and monetary flags to decide which candidates are going to be covered during the election season. So, how do we delineate instinct from bias?

In short, truth and trust.

In their book "The Elements of Journalism," Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel discuss the attainability of truth in journalism.

"To understand the sorting out process, it is important to remember that journalism exists in a social context. Out of necessity, citizens and societies depend on accurate and reliable accounts of events. They develop procedures and processes to arrive at what might be called "functional truth. ... This is what journalism is after - a practical or functional form of truth."

Journalists, including those that are covering politics, are required to report the truth of what is happening to provide the highest quality of reporting.

We journalists are often thought of as gatekeepers, people who have the responsibility of halting all rumors and gossip stories and checking them thoroughly to allow only this "functional truth" to be disseminated.

Unfortunately, we're failing. For instance, what if the media had researched Rand Paul's supposed NoZe Brotherhood affiliation and discovered that rather than a sacrilegious organization, the brotherhood serves as the satirical voice of our university?

His opponent set the trap and we, the media, took the bait.

A more recent embarrassment is when Fox News incorrectly reported that President Barack Obama's trip to India would cost $200 million a day.

The White House told other journalists that were checking Fox's information that the price for the trip was nowhere near that amount.

If the media is going to fulfill the gatekeeper role, we should snuff out rumors and misnomers and instead focus on policies and proposals.

Our energy and talent should be spent on telling the masses not what to think, but what to think about.

The Obama case shows the strength of some organizations and highlights that major networks are sacrificing the admirable and necessary values of the journalism industry. As journalists, we have an obligation to readers first.

They expect the truth. They expect accuracy.

If we don't begin to police ourselves, the small amounts of corruption that currently exist will be the demise of an industry vital to a functioning democracy.

Nick Dean is a junior journalism and political science double major and the editor in chief of The Lariat.