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3Qs: The scoop on political news coverage

Walter Robinson is a distinguished professor of journalism. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

With news coverage of the Republican presidential primaries in full swing, we asked Walter Robinson — Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Northeastern and a former reporter and editor for The Boston Globe — to assess the current state of political journalism and how factors like new technologies and smaller newsrooms are affecting campaign coverage. Robinson covered presidential campaigns for the Globe in 1984, 1988, 1992 and 2000.

Campaign stories tend to focus on polls, often feeling like coverage of a horse race. Why does political reporting so often take this form?

I think polls are a crutch for reporters who don’t want to talk to real voters and for editors and reporters who cannot stand to be in a news environment in which they do not know what the outcome will be. When you think about the journalism we do most of the time, we’re reporting on things that have happened. In elections, when we’re reporting on things that are going to happen, we get way off the mark and try to anticipate outcomes. Predicting the financial markets may be easier. These polls create a fiction that we report prominently — often on Page One. To give one example: you see polls of the entire national electorate taken months before most people even get to vote, at a time when the majority of voters are still undecided. You can’t predict with any reliability what voters will do very far in advance because they simply don’t decide that far in advance. In the end, the substance gets lost in the horserace, this continual chase of the numbers.

Are any networks or publications covering politics better than most this year?

At the moment, because all the characters onstage are conservative Republicans, the best political reporting and analysis in the cable TV world is Fox News. I think they have a better handle on the conservative primary race because they have better access to candidates, they have better analysts of both parties and they’ve treated the candidates pretty evenhandedly so far. Fox has been a pleasant surprise, but once the primaries are over I think the standard criticism of Fox — that they lean too far to the right — will likely come back.

What factors, like the downsizing of newsrooms and the emergence of new technologies like Twitter, are influencing campaign coverage ahead of the 2012 presidential election?

As someone who now does tweet, though more for the fun of it, I’d have to say that I think Twitter is a good indicator of the extent to which the American electorate and the press all have a collective case of attention deficit disorder. We already have so much information coming at us so when you add in tweets — which are so often substance free — it further harms the electorate.

Shrinking newsrooms have also had a real impact. It used to be, at this time of the year, The Boston Globe — as an example of one paper that has long taken politics seriously — would have 10 or more reporters in New Hampshire ahead of the primary, a number that would not include columnists. Because large news organizations have lost so many staff members, you instead start to have these much smaller news organizations with younger, less-experienced reporters covering politics. One problem that creates is that many of the reporters show up in Iowa to cover someone like Rick Santorum with no idea about what he was like as a congressman or a senator. So when a good reporter from some place like The New York Times has a story about his background and his demeanor, it’s news for a lot of people — and that, unfortunately, includes a lot of the reporters.