By Richard A. Lee
With New York’s presidential primary upon us, candidates are engaging in a variety of staged activities aimed at winning votes in the race for the White House.
We see them sampling regional delicacies, cheering on area sports teams and name-dropping local officials and institutions. Such activities may in fact win some votes, but they are not the best way to choose the next leader of the free world. Instead of debating the pros and cons of eating pizza with a fork, we should be analyzing the candidates’ plans for the economy, education and foreign policy. But we don’t.
It is easier for a candidate to do a photo op than to explain and defend a complex public policy initiative. For the media, in-depth stories on public policy issues are more difficult to cover and less likely to attract eyeballs. As a result, voters get shortchanged. But they are not blameless, either. If public interest in issues was stronger, public policy stories would attract larger audiences, the media would do more of them and the candidates would spend more time talking about topics that matter.
Unfortunately, politicians have little incentive to focus on issues when staged events, 140-character tweets and personal attacks generate attention from the public and the press. Likewise, voters are unlikely to proactively seek out details of where the candidates stand on the issues and to then take the time and effort needed to evaluate their positions and proposals.
This problem also creates an opportunity – an opportunity for the media to take the lead and concentrate on presenting citizens with the information they need to make informed and educated decisions on public policy.
Nearly 100 years ago in his 1922 book “Public Opinion,” Walter Lippmann suggested that the role of the media is not to simply act as a mirror that provides citizens with a view of what is happening in the world. Instead, he wrote that it is the media’s responsibility to shine a searchlight on activities and events so that informed decisions can be made.
In a landmark 1968 study, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill professors Max McCombs and Donald Shaw found that the media have the ability to set the public agenda. Over the years, their theory has been supported by hundreds of additional studies that also concluded that the items covered frequently and prominently by the media are the ones citizens consider most important.
The media can create a more informed electorate by increasing public policy coverage and forgoing the campaigns’ daily staged events. That’s a big “if” in today’s 24/7 news cycle, but I would like to see the media give it a try.
Richard A. Lee, who teaches journalism at St. Bonaventure University, covered politics and government in New Jersey for many years and also served as deputy communications director for two of the state’s governors.