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Obama calls out news media for shallow campaign coverage: Is he right?

The president used a speech to call for more fact-checking of whether candidate policy ideas are realistic. Some media experts say he's at least partly correct. 

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    President Barack Obama waves at the awards dinner for Syracuse University's Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting. He gave a speech at the event, held in Washington on March 28.
    Yuri Gripas/Reuters
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President Obama’s assertion that the news media are partly responsible for a vulgar, violent, and policy-lite presidential election may sound harsh, but it's not wholly off base, media experts say.

As if to heap insult upon injury, some critics even say mainstream news outlets should take pointers on substance from late-night political satire shows.

Obama made his remarks at a journalism awards dinner Monday. He said news organizations should ask tougher questions. And while the president didn’t refer to Donald Trump directly, he said the media have continually made headlines out of vulgar rhetoric or sometimes-violent altercations at campaign rallies, while letting unrealistic campaign pledges go largely unchecked.

Media experts don't all agree with this critique from the nation's chief executive. While certain pockets of the news media could be doing more, there are also many publications that have done rigorous fact checking on all the candidates, says one expert who gives a "half true" rating to Obama's comments. But the flip-side view is that mainstream news organizations - some desperate for revenue and ratings - have gone astray in making headlines out of everything Mr. Trump says at stump speeches.

“I would rate [Obama’s comments] half true,” says Bill Adair, a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University and founder of political fact-checking website, Politifact.

“I think there are definitely instances where elements of the media have focused on things and failed to dig deeply, but I also think there are plenty of examples of the media doing excellent work to hold all of the candidates accountable, particularly Donald Trump,” Mr. Adair says.

The lines of responsible coverage can be blurry. Much of the Trump coverage is not flattering to the Republican presidential candidate, and controversy surrounding whether he encourages a violent response toward anti-Trump protesters at his rallies is a legitimate news story. But the question of whether the media is unfairly overcovering Trump, compared with other candidates, has become a matter of hot public debate in recent weeks.

In his speech, at a ceremony for the Toner Prize for Excellence in Journalism, Obama said media outlets are not questioning hard enough in a campaign that has “entirely untethered to reason, facts and analysis,” and that the media landscape had changed since the presidential campaign of 2008, when journalists exacted a heavier toll on candidates for mistruths.

But Adair says that there are pockets in the media environment, that have rigorously fact checked the feasibility of campaign promises like Trump’s plan to wall off America’s border with Mexico.

He points to sites including Politifact, FactCheck.org, and the Washington Post have done rigorous background checking of candidates across the political spectrum, including Trump. News organizations with enough resources have also done strong enterprise journalism exploring candidates’ backgrounds and the substance many of their claims, he says, citing a New York Times piece on Trump's worldview last weekend.

Politifact, for whom Adair is a contributing editor, determined that of all Mr. Trump’s claims it investigated, 49 percent were deemed “false,” while 22 percent received a “pants on fire” rating.

He says what a democratic public does with that information is out of media hands. “The duty of the media is to inform democracy. I think we’ve done that really well and it’s up to democracy to decide what it does with what we provide.”

But democracy might not do much with it – unless it finds its way into a Facebook newsfeed. A Pew Poll from mid-2015 shows that for a majority of millennials, social media is their number-one source of news. Baby boomers still prefer local television, while gen-Xers are somewhere in the middle.

Adair doesn’t think the media ecosystem is any different than it was four years ago. What’s changed, he says, is that we have in Trump a “very different candidate” who communicates differently. “He’s changed the rules of engagement."

Indeed, Trump has played the media like a fiddle, strategically timing offensive tweets or his withdrawal from a debate to keep his place in the limelight. His campaign’s direct spending on media is the lowest of any remaining candidate, yet he has gained more dollars of “earned” media coverage than any of his rivals, the New York Times reported.

For all the strong political coverage, too many pockets in the news business are still letting the stump-speech circus dictate what they produce, says Kevin Smith, a member of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee, who agrees with Obama’s assessment of the media’s performance.

Smith says they could do a better job by taking their lead from some of the late night political satire shows, where many people learn the most about the news. This would mean allocating more resources to patient, in-depth research on the candidates and their claims.

“I know the most about the cost of constructing that wall from watching Stephen Colbert,” Smith says, referring to Trump’s plans to wall off America’s Southern border. “Isn’t that a sad commentary on what we’re doing as journalists.”

“Let’s just say 20 percent or 25 percent of the media in this country back off of Donald Trump for one week, and shifted their resources to doing substantive reporting on his policies,” Smith says. “By the next week ... you would have more substantive information on him as a candidate than you would from all of the stump speeches that he’s made.”

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