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3Qs: Getting the story on the debt ceiling

The contentious debate over the debt ceiling became one of this summer’s hottest news stories. We asked Dan Kennedy, assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, to assess the overall coverage as well as the challenges journalists face when reporting any politically charged story.

Many Americans had never heard of the debt ceiling prior to this debate. Did mainstream media outlets do enough to explain it to the public?

That’s a hard question to answer, because the media are not monolithic. Tens of millions of people rely on quality news outlets like the New York Times and National Public Radio. I thought they did a good job of explaining that the debt-ceiling vote was a routine measure passed dozens of times previously, and that the Republicans were holding it up in order to force massive spending cuts. On the other hand, people who relied on television, and especially on cable news, were told that there was a political battle going on with very little in the way of context or background.

When reporting on national debates around such issues as the debt ceiling, how do journalists balance covering what may be a bitter political discourse and explaining the issues at hand? And how did this balancing act play out here?

There is a major difference between how top-flight news organizations handled the story compared to cable news. But, in general, the media’s instinct is to cover such issues as though they were sporting events—Democrats versus Republicans, who’s up and who’s down, winners and losers—while paying little or no attention to the underlying issues.

One problem is the false notion of objectivity—the idea that journalists should present the views of both “sides” as though they are equally worthy of consideration. Objectivity was never intended to substitute for the truth.

In this case, it was objectively true that President Obama and congressional Democrats were willing to give the Republicans almost everything they wanted in order to avoid default. Yet the both-sides paradigm is so ingrained that CNN and the Associated Press, among others, continued to run stories to the effect that neither side would compromise.

In the plan passed by Congress, the overwhelming majority of the cuts do not kick in until 2013. Has this rather important fact been properly reported on? In general, what are your thoughts on how mainstream media cover government budget stories?

That fact has been well covered by the news organizations that many people rely on. In addition, in several of his statements President Obama has addressed the notion that most of the cuts will be delayed until after the economy has started to recover. Overall, though, Washington-based journalists like to cover politics, and so every story they encounter ends up being seen through that lens. We have heard far more about how the debt-ceiling battle may affect Obama’s re-election chances than about what it might actually mean for the economy.