A nation transfixed ... by politics?

High ratings for news coverage of Election 2000 belie claims that Americans aren't interested in politics.

Network news executives must be scratching their heads.

Their ratings are doubling - in some cases tripling - and there's not a scent of scandal, sex, or celebrity chatter issuing forth from their news desks.

What's got Americans riveted is just plain, old-fashioned hard news - the story of an election too tight to call, and the accompanying, complicated legal wrangling.

And the country can't seem to get enough. On Monday, the major networks even broke into their afternoon soaps to bring the live drama unfolding at the Florida State Supreme Court. Media critics were delighted.

While coverage of the ongoing Election 2000 has been praised as exemplary, enterprising work, the media have also been chastised for their tendency to over-hype - as in the breathless "BREAKING NEWS" logo permanently attached to the bottom of the screen.

Indeed, a recent Newsweek poll found that more than two-thirds of Americans think the networks have presented the Florida recount story as more of a crisis than it really is.

But critics say this watershed election could have a lasting effect on the media, by turning on its head the conventional wisdom that politics is an automatic audience-killer.

"It shows that politics is relevant to people's lives; it's not necessarily bad for ratings," says Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The bottom line

Since the early 1980s, when network news operations began focusing more on the bottom line, politics and public policy have taken a beating on the nightly news. Elite election unit budgets were slashed, seasoned political reporters were shown the door, and soft "news you can use" was welcomed in by executives anxious to keep ratings up.

An analysis by Harvard University's Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy found that from 1977 to 1997, the number of stories about government and public affairs dropped by nearly 20 percent. At the same time, sensational and human-interest stories rose, along with negative coverage of political candidates.

A study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press also found a steady erosion in the public's confidence in government over the same time frame.

But the shift to "infotainment" did little to halt the steady loss of viewers. News ratings continued to plummet, except when an O.J. or a Monica burst onto the scene to capture the nation's attention.

"Some of the recent trends in news coverage may be not only weakening the public sphere, but may also be eroding the demand for news and adversely affecting the news audience," says the Shorenstein Center's Tom Patterson.

Mr. Patterson points out that USA Today, once derided by critics as a "McPaper," has taken an increasingly serious approach to news, and seen its circulation increase.

"It was an evolutionary thing," says Bob Dubill, executive editor of USA Today. To thrive in today's media environment, he explains, a paper must not only cover "bread-and-butter hard news," but must produce "enterprise stories that are going to make a difference in people's lives." Many of these stories focus on public-policy issues, like healthcare and education.

Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center, says the fundamental problem with today's news is not people's lack of interest. "We've stopped giving people what they need in an interesting form, and have been giving them what they say they want," he says. "It's not a very nourishing diet, and sooner or later, you get tired of eating ice cream if that's the only thing that's being dished out."

Healthcare over hairstyles

Rosenstiel also believes news executives have misunderstood the market research that supposedly showed politics was bad for ratings. "People care about healthcare and Social Security and the rest, but if we turn coverage of politics and government into coverage of hairstyle, debating style, and horse race, they're going to tune out," he says.

Most media experts agree with that, despite the recent high-profile failure of WBBM in Chicago to make its substantive news operation a ratings star.

Patterson points to a News Research Lab study of 59 local TV news operations around the country. It found that "the very best stations in terms of substance were twice as likely as other stations to be at the top of the ratings."

As the election drama unfolds, media critics are hoping that desk editors and news anchors take heed of the public's desire for quality reporting.

"[The media] can't just be an arbiter of the warring parties, it really has to stand back and try to figure out on behalf of the public what's going on, and to represent something other than conflicting tales," says Everette Dennis, a media critic at New York's Fordham University. "I do think that's both possible and desirable."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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