Due to the growth and prominence of digital media, new technologies, social media, and the decline of print, investigative, and local journalism, political coverage in the U.S. has dramatically changed over the past few decades.
(5 Rules of Ethical Journalism.)
With an endless supply of quickly produced and instantly accessible internet-based news or “news-like” sources (many of them questionable at best), the voting public are no longer confined to the once highly regarded legacy media, regulated by media law and press ethics. TV network news, newspapers, and even cable news are forced to compete with new online outlets. The proliferation of grassroots journalism in the form of blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels has also had a huge impact on politics and society in both positive and negative ways.
Not only has the coverage itself changed but also the way politicians communicate with the public, with social media sites like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) becoming popular political tools to directly interact with voters, bypassing journalists altogether. In fact, many people get their political news solely from social media sites or TV, radio, or online talk shows. X or Twitter is littered with politics. According to a PEW Research study published in 2022 one third of Tweets posted by U.S. adults between May 1, 2020, and May 31, 2021, were political in nature.
And we cannot ignore the changing demographics and the fact that tech-savvy younger generations are no-longer apathetic but now engaging in the political process more than ever before.
National politics, political candidates (one character in particular), and a handful of issues have come to dominate the news, with the coverage no longer confined to election seasons. With so many news outlets battling for the public’s attention, and the political climate volatile and the country polarized, it’s little wonder that much of the focus is on the most flamboyant, click-bait-y stories that (unfortunately) people are most inclined to read. Personality and identity politics and sensational headlines, popular with tabloid-like publications in the past, are now mainstream. And the kicker is it works, keeping these outlets afloat.
Many believe the media has strayed far off the path of objectivity and impartiality and the news is often accused of partisan bias. Others see things in a different light suggesting this is not about taking political sides but rather fueled by something far simpler: what’s considered most newsworthy and can capture the public’s attention. And yes, there’s also the ‘making money’ angle, and the manipulation of that human need to belong to a group, a team, a tribe, and how outrage sells.
As journalist Ezra Klein states in a Vox article, “The old line on local reporting was ‘if it bleeds it leads.’ For political reporting, the principle is ‘if it outrages, it leads.’” And in his book Why We’re Polarized Klein goes on to claim: “The political media is biased, but not toward the Left or Right so much as toward loud, outrageous, colorful, inspirational, confrontational. It is biased toward the political stories and figures who activate our identities, because it is biased toward and dependent on the fraction of the country with the most intense political identities.”
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Politics is a huge and red-hot topic that can produce countless articles (and fuel many arguments) so for this piece we’re going to look at political journalism in more general terms.
Thankfully good, quality journalism still exists in both established mediums and among independent journalists. There are plenty of political journalists devoted to their craft, providing vital information on political candidates and their policies, and offering intelligent and nuanced analysis of the issues at stake.
We’ve already looked at some of the changes in political journalism so let’s turn now to the role of journalism in politics and those who do the reporting.
So, what exactly is the role of journalism in politics?
Political journalism involves the gathering, reporting, and analyzing news about the government, politics, and legislation, covering elections, campaigns, politicians, candidates, political parties, issues, and government policies. This occurs on a local, state, and national level and it’s not just about presidential races, soundbites, and controversial issues, although anyone would be forgiven for thinking this. News from the Whitehouse to state governments and right down to city and town councils are equally important, affecting the public on different levels.
The media’s role, especially during elections, is to disseminate information in an objective and unbiased manner. Journalists are society’s watchdogs, with a duty to provide neutral, balanced, and accurate reports of events, expose the truth in government, and to hold those in power accountable. They work on behalf of the people to challenge and scrutinize public officials and politicians representing all political viewpoints.
(5 Myths of Journalism.)
Without balance and fairness in political reporting, media outlets become the mouthpieces of government. As much as possible, each candidate should receive equal treatment and the press has a duty to pursue both positive and negative stories regardless of the journalist’s feelings about the individuals involved. Of course, some candidates are more interesting and newsworthy than others, so we must also take this into account.
Journalists and columnists are free to share their feelings and express their views in opinion pieces and personal essays or if they’re employed as a political commentator or pundit.
Who is a political journalist?
Politics can be covered by general reporters or those assigned exclusively to political issues, campaigns, or a particular candidate.
A generalist would most likely be a reporter at a regional newspaper, who covers the town or city council meetings. Bigger city or statewide newspapers normally employ a journalist or several reporters to cover state government and politics. And national newspapers, such as The New York Times, have teams of reporters covering all aspects of politics, from presidential candidates to the White House. They (and other large publications) always have reporters in the field contributing to live blog coverage and longer, reported pieces, features, and analyses.
Campaign reporters will focus on a particular candidate and travel with them during the election cycle. TV networks, cable news, and radio stations will similarly embed reporters/producers with every major candidate in the run up to presidential elections. These “embeds” on the campaign trail will travel to and report from each campaign stop and event across the country. Each President has their own traveling press corps.
Local and national news outlets, including commercial networks and public television stations, also offer political coverage in the form of in-studio panel discussion shows, live debates, and town hall meetings. And we must remember there are hundreds of candidates running for different offices on the local, state, and national level. It’s not just about presidential candidates. During elections, either presidential or midterms, there will also be issues on the ballot in many states. These ballot measures can range from legalizing recreational marijuana to requiring photo ID for voting.
Freelance journalists and writers also cover political events and issues, and whereas press credentials are not always required, sometimes it’s a definite advantage, so you can avoid having to talk your way into a candidate’s rally (Hillary Clinton) like I had to. Press passes are available through membership in certain journalism organizations including the
And as for independent, grassroots, or citizen journalists, they too have access to most political rallies and campaign events and are free to report however they choose on their favored platform, be it over a podcast or through a blog.
With new technology a different political landscape has emerged, and it’s been fascinating watching the media industry change, adapt, and develop over the past few decades.
A new generation of campaign embeds record practically every stump speech, political rally, and press gaggle during the election cycles. Political journalists from all walks are busy doing their jobs, utilizing both modern technology and time-tested traditional methods. So, it seems politics is being thoroughly covered here in 2023.
The public has more news choices, access to information and more resources than at any time in history. So, everyone should be fully informed about the political process, after all the information is out there. It just depends on whether they stay in their social media echo chambers or venture into “enemy” territory. Or maybe even look beyond the headlines and dig a little deeper for some solid, ‘outrage-less’ old-school political coverage.
If enough journalists continue adhering to the core principles of journalism—truth, accuracy, fairness, impartiality, and accountability, then we’re on the right road, however rocky it seems at times. But there will always be an element of nostalgia for the “good old days” before social media and “online news” among we journalists old enough to remember those ancient times.
We’ve referred to this following quote in a previous article, but it’s worth repeating. “We’re not here to run the government, we’re not here to run politics, we’re here to report on the people who are involved in politics and government,” says Bob Schieffer, former CBS Chief Correspondent, Washington Bureau, and former host of Face the Nation. “We can’t have a democracy like we have unless citizens have access to independently gathered information that they can compare with the government’s version of events. And when they do that, we’ve done our job.”