Polls and front pages: deciding what’s news

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The lead “political” story on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered for Monday, June 5th was the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban marriage between people of the same sex. Why was this the lead story? Apparently because “President” Bush made it the focus of his weekly radio address two days earlier, and made a major speech on the subject that day. As the NPR report put it, “The amendment is scheduled to receive two days of debate in the Senate, where its chance of passage is considered slim at best.”

Paired with this lead story, NPR ran a “news analysis” that was headlined “Will Same-Sex Issue Prop Up Bush’s Polls?” In that analysis, NPR reporter Don Gonyea pointed out that, despite all the attention focused on this issue by Mr. Bush and by the Senate, “…polls show Americans don’t consider banning same-sex marriage very important.”

Gonyea went on to quote Frank Newport, executive editor of the Gallup Poll, speaking about the “polling he’s done, including in recent days.” Mr. Newport was heard to say that “Almost no one–literally, almost no one–mentions gay rights or homosexuality or a family amendment to the Constitution. Literally, three people out of the thousand we interviewed mentioned that. Everyone, regardless of political stripe–Republican, Independent, and Democrat–tells us they’re concerned about the war in Iraq, they’re concerned about economic issues, the price of gasoline, and immigration more recently. But nobody says…this is a priority.”

The analysis went on to build the argument that “the president’s current low public approval ratings do give him plenty of incentive to talk about same-sex marriage, because it is important to religious conservatives who have been among his strongest supporters.”

At first glance, one may want to praise NPR for challenging Mr. Bush and presenting an “angle” on this story that the Republican leadership did not mention. But I don’t think it’s particularly praiseworthy. The real question is, why was this the lead story at all? Why, in fact, was it even in the news that day, if no one cares about it but the “President” and his “strongest supporters?”

It’s not just NPR. Many papers–The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The Denver Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and who-knows-who else–put the gay marriage amendment on the front page after Mr. Bush’s speech.

Is it the job of the news media to serve as a megaphone to allow political leaders to communicate with their “base?” It is, when the name of the game is “Follow the Leader.”

Ask The People?
I’m not a big fan of opinion polling, but I do think the polls could be made somewhat useful, and could serve to help the media wean themselves from dependence on political elites for their cues as to what is newsworthy.

Most of the major polls, like Gallup, routinely offer people a list of “issues” facing the nation, and ask people to say how important each one is. Typically, the list itself is kind of wacky and arbitrary, but imagine if the media were to use these polls to influence what stories to put on the front pages–and which not to. This would be an easy way to “let the people decide” which stories are newsworthy. And it would also help the media determine which stories to “follow.” That is, which stories are considered inherently important, regardless of what “happens” on the issue. When the media is “following” a story, each day’s developments are “news,” even if what happens on a given day is “nothing.” It is newsworthy, that is, if our leadership takes no action during a crisis, and such non-action should be reported.

So, for example, let’s take as guidance the most recent Gallup Poll I could find (from March). At the top of the list of issues that respondents “personally worry about” was “the availability and affordability of health care.” (89 percent worry about this “a great deal” or “a fair amount.”) If a week goes by and the Congress takes no action to address this issue–which the people say is a major issue–that inaction would be news, and would be on the front page, at least once a week. If the headlines, week after week, were to read “Congress Ignores Health Care Crisis (Again),” that would no doubt have a political impact. But it would not be driven (at least not directly) by “the elite media.” Nor would it be driven by the “President” or his public relations bureaucracy. Instead, this political impact would be related, fairly directly, to the concerns of the population. How democratic!

Equally important in this approach would be to give the media permission to ignore big chunks of propaganda. That is, when the “President” devotes a radio address to an issue that “literally, almost no one” cares about, then the media the next day might be permitted to ignore what the “President” said. Or, if they insist on covering his words, the “story” might be to report that the “President” is out of touch with the people, or to report his words as propaganda and not as a legitimate “issue.” Again, this would not be the “liberal media” at work; they would be getting their priorities from “the people.”

One predictable outcome of such a tactic being adopted by the nation’s press would be a ramping up of the already-considerable official attempts to propagandize people into having “correct” priorities. That is, getting people to care about what political elites want them to care about. This, after all, is why various non-crises like “Social Security” and “immigration” so often make the list of top national priorities in the polls.

Other stories that deserve to be followed might include energy, drug use, and crime, which all rank higher than terrorist attacks in the Gallup Poll. Or, perhaps, homelessness, environmental issues, unemployment, and “race relations,” all of which all rank higher in the minds of United Statesians than same-sex marriage. (Of course, virtually everything ranks higher than same-sex marriage.)

There are better ways than the standard polls to assess the public’s view of national priorities, I’m sure. But the point here is to call to attention the fact that decisions about how news is covered–indeed, what is “news” at all–are currently made in a certain way, by people employed by large corporations whose interest is not the public welfare. These decisions could be made in a more democratic, participatory way than they are now. Don’t you think? Maybe you can come up with some ideas yourself about how to do it.

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