A Very Tough Look at Political Coverage  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 1995

A Very Tough Look at Political Coverage   

The Media and the Mayor's Race: The Failure of Urban Political reporting
By Phyllis Kaniss
Indiana University Press

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     



The Media and the Mayor's Race: The Failure of Urban Political
Reporting
By Phyllis Kaniss
Indiana University Press
395 pages; $16.95 paperback

Here's a news flash: Today's political coverage is obsessed with horse race, reporters favor sensation over substance, and cynical politicians build campaigns around sound bites and photo ops.

Phyllis Kaniss has taken this conventional wisdom and written an exceptional work that freshly drives it home, heeding the most ancient writing advice. She shows rather than tells.

By following reporters and candidates through the 1991 Philadelphia mayor's race, Kaniss amasses rich quotes, anecdotes and scenes to demonstrate the points through a readable, humanized narrative.

Her findings dramatically underscore familiar themes: 65 percent of the Inquirer's campaign stories dealt with horse race, only nine mayoral stories appeared on the front page at all, and the television stations gave twice as much attention to mudslinging as to issues. Coverage had a negative tone; dull or long shot candidates were marginalized; and the few stories that did deal with substance tended to be buried.

Kaniss recognizes both the institutional and individual influences behind these findings. Newspapers, she explains, are struggling to interest bored readers, sacrificing detailed government coverage for trendier consumer news. Television, which she judges even more harshly, is moving overtly toward "ultrasimplified story lines" and a bottom line mentality that all but jettisons social responsibility. Both print and TV chase after affluent suburbanites at the expense of the inner city.

These "signals" aren't missed by the reporters she follows, notably the Inquirer's brash, free-wheeling Sal Paolantonio and KYW-TV's hard-working Tia O'Brien. When Paolantonio entices the incumbent mayor to call one candidate a "worm," the story makes page one; when he puts together a "major substantive piece" on another's tax policy, it runs on page 12-B.

Kaniss generously praises the reporters, but she unblinkingly records their struggles with editors, competitive jitters, and calculated schemes to hit page one or prime time.

Her behind-the-curtain presence pays off abundantly. Kaniss traces how a personal falling out between one reporter and a candidate may have affected coverage. She describes a great scene where an adviser gives candidate Frank Rizzo hand signals to guide him through an interview.

She provides the most thorough interviews I've seen in which Inquirer editorial board members discuss why they made their endorsements. And she details how a candidate publicly utters a line he probably first heard from a reporter only to have the same reporter cite the line in a piece criticizing the candidate.

In the end, she blames the system more than individuals, for a "fundamental failing in campaign coverage."

The assistant dean at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, Kaniss achieves a journalistic hat trick with her book: She's simultaneously fascinating, evenhanded and very tough. In the end, she credits the newspapers for at least worrying about their failures. About television, she's considerably less hopeful.

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