News That Sells

I found the following remarks in an article about how we should take reports about the latest polling results with a grain of salt. I have always done so, but it was most interesting to read what the writer said about news reporting generally:

Our research suggests yet another reason not to overreact to news stories about the newest poll: Media outlets tend to cover the surveys with the most “newsworthy” results, which can distort the picture of where the race stands.

Why? Consider the incentives of the news business. News outlets cover polls because they fit the very definition of newsworthiness. They’re new, timely, often generate conflict and allow political reporters to appear objective by simply telling readers and viewers what the public thinks. Horse-race stories are also popular.

Given that readers are drawn to drama and uncertainty, polls that offer intrigue or new developments — such as a close race or signs that one candidate is surging — are more likely to be deemed newsworthy. In particular, polls with unusual results may be more likely to make the news.

Note, please, the “incentives” of the news business. To begin with, news is regarded as a business, not a public service. This is, of corse, true. The hooker is that as a business news sources must worry about who pays the piper. That is to say, news reporting should be about what we need to know to be an informed citizenry; rather, it’s about what sells newspapers or air time. “Newsworthiness” is nothing more or less than what sells.

But I was struck by the notion that reporters should “appear to be objective,” as though objectivity should not be their highest goal. Clearly, it is impossible to be completely objective — how could one be objective about a person such as Donald Trump, for example? One either hates or (apparently) loves the man. But the idea that a reporter, like an historian, should be objective should be the first order of business. I recall a friend once saying that he wished someone would write an objective history of the Civil War — from the Southern point of view! As I say, it can’t be done. None the less, it should always be the goal of any historian or reporter. But this writer says it is enough to “appear” to be objective. The polls do this by giving us numbers. But the selection of those polls can be very subjective and it appears as though that choice is based on what strikes the reporter as sensational (“drama and uncertainty”).

It’s a good idea to take what we hear and read with a grain of salt generally. It pays to be suspicious and question all sources of information. We cannot always do this, but it, too, is a goal we should all seek to achieve. This is the point of thinking critically — not to reject, but to accept on reasonable grounds, which requires that we have a good idea off what constitute reasonable grounds. This is especially difficult in an age like ours in which the reports we read and see on television are selected for all the wrong reasons.

I have noted in past blogs that reporting has become an arm of the entertainment industry. But it is interesting to have reinforcement of that idea by someone who seems to accept as a given the fact that reporting is all about getting through to an audience rather than about telling the world what is going on and letting the world decide what they want to read, see, or hear. Apparently TV is the worst culprit in this decline of reporting as news provider and this is because TV is a cut-throat business and as we all know business is what our world is all about these days: it’s all about the bottom line.


I don’t pay much attention to polls. I especially tend to ignore pre-election polls. But a recent poll regarding the incumbent President’s chances to win in November and the “fact” that single women may win him the White House, while it suggests that single women may be the smartest segment of the voting public, raises some interesting issues that have nothing to do with polls. A recent story tells us that

In 2008, Republican Senator John McCain beat Obama 52%-47% among married voters, according to exit polls, while the Democrat [Obama} thumped him 65%-33% among unmarried people. That suggests that Obama has lost ground among married voters and unmarried voters alike. A drop would hardly be a surprise: Americans are unhappy about the sour economy three and a half years after the president took office vowing to fix it.

To begin with, Obama is being hoist by his own petard, having embraced the notion of “change” in his candidacy four years ago. He was going to be the President of Change and turn things around. Every political candidate promises this, of course. But he made it the focal point of his campaign. Big Mistake. The remarkable thing is that we still believe these people — after repeated failures to deliver on campaign promises. Further, Americans want what they want when they want it. We are an impatient people and if we grant the President three years to turn the economy around and he hasn’t done it we want someone else in there who will.

The problem is, of course, Obama was trying to get things done with a Republican Congress that refused to cooperate at every turn. He used up all his chips on health care, and he didn’t have many to begin with. We are now so deeply entrenched in party politics and there isn’t a man or woman alive who could effect meaningful change trying to work with people who are ideologically opposed to them in the Congress. It is naive to suppose that even if this man did everything he could to turn the economy around he could have done it alone. It’s not clear that a Republican President could have done it. The economy is in the toilet and no one seems to know what the magic formula is to pull it out (though I would suggest cuts in “defense,” increasing taxes on the wealthy, closing corporate loop-holes, shifting tax subsidies from Big Oil to clean energy thereby creating more jobs and helping to save the planet — for a start. But what do I know?).

Political promises are made to be broken. We simply should accept that fact going in. Furthermore, change takes time — years in the case of complex problems that have no simple solutions and where the infamous 1% seem to be in charge. This group as we know includes many members of Congress and as a whole they don’t really want radical change: they are doing just fine with things as they are, thank you very much.  Change may indeed come. But it will be very slow in coming and it may not be for the better.