- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This month, voters from dozens of states have cast ballots in the latest and most meaningful step toward choosing our next president. Millions of voters have had the opportunity to participate in democracy — our most basic and profound right as Americans.

Unfortunately, I fear the process has been tarnished by the national news media’s unfair coverage of the campaign. Democratic presidential candidates have received more abundant and favorable news coverage than Republican candidates.

Not all members of the media contribute to this problem. In fact, many journalists with varied political views report the news fairly. However, there is a clear leftward slant on news coverage, and I am concerned about its impact on the election.

I am troubled by unfair reporting not because I am a Republican, but because I believe strongly in the necessity of democracy.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” Without free access to information about candidates, Americans cannot make informed voting decisions, and our democracy is threatened.

America is at a crossroads, and this election will help determine our path. Judging by strong turnout at the early primaries and caucuses, Americans are aware of the importance of this election and eager to participate. We need and deserve access to fair and impartial news coverage.

Unfortunately, too often the media have failed us. A study by Harvard University and the Project for Excellence in Journalism found 49 percent of all campaign stories involved Democratic candidates, while just 31 percent involved Republican candidates. In addition, Democratic presidential candidates received twice the amount of favorable coverage as Republicans. And Hillary Clinton drew nearly twice the amount of media coverage as any Republican candidate.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), a nonpartisan division of the Pew Research Center, also analyzes news coverage weekly. Its survey from the week of Jan. 14-20 found that Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both received more coverage than any Republican candidate, though there were two close Republican primaries that week compared to just one Democratic race.

It is easy to point out the extensive evidence of unfair campaign coverage. It is more difficult to determine possible reasons for the problem.

In its analysis of the survey, PEJ speculated that “the fact that both Clinton and Obama generated substantially more coverage than any Republican may reflect the inexorable influence of media expectations in shaping coverage.” In other words, the media are likely to cover candidates who exceed expectations. But since surveys consistently show Democrats leading in news coverage, how can it be that Democratic candidates always exceed expectations more often than Republicans?

Another possible explanation for unfair campaign coverage is the media’s tendency to report news in a way that conforms to a predetermined story line. For instance, a candidate labeled as “the comeback kid” receives news coverage that seeks to reinforce that narrative. On the contrary, candidates often can struggle for weeks or longer to free themselves from negative branding. Perhaps Democrats are more likely to receive positive story lines from the media initially, and news coverage simply perpetuates the cycle.

It is also possible that the culture of the 24-hour news cycle has forced the media to shape the story too quickly, at the expense of fairness and accuracy. Debates, polls and election results are interpreted instantly by cable news, talk radio and blogs. In a journalistic world where the vast majority lean left, perhaps it is no surprise that initial reactions are one-sided. As a result, many political coronations and obituaries have proven to be premature, and media fairness suffers.

In fact, a Sacred Heart University poll released in January found fewer than 20 percent of those surveyed believe news media reporting. The poll also found almost 9 in 10 Americans believe the news media attempt to influence public opinion, and about the same number think the media try to influence public policies.

Cynicism leads to distrust, which can lead to indifference. As we head into perhaps the most important election of this generation, the last thing we need is an indifferent — or, worse, misinformed — electorate.

Until we hold journalists to the highest standards of their profession, unfair reporting will continue to influence elections and undermine our democracy.

Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.


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