One of the most crucial functions of the news media is to establish the direction of the nation’s conversation. The media’s priorities, theoretically, become the priorities of the public. This is what media theorists refer to as agenda setting. Ideally, this media-created agenda should reflect the interests and priorities of the citizenry. After all, the free press was established so that reporters could collectively serve as surrogates of the public.
A recent study from the Media Research Center, however, shows that broadcast media are disconnected from viewers, pushing the media’s own agenda more than representing the public’s interests. MRC data show well over half of all news coverage of the Trump administration on the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC over a five week period focused on the probe of Russian influence in the 2016 election.
The big networks spent 353 minutes covering the Russia investigation, but, for example, only 29 minutes on terrorism. The networks combined to spend only five minutes on the economy and jobs, and only three minutes on Trump’s plans to improve the nation’s infrastructure.
Such imbalance of coverage would suggest the public is clamoring for wall-to-wall coverage of Russia’s role in the election. The citizenry, however, wants a broader news agenda. A recent Harvard-Harris poll shows well over half of Americans want the media to move on to cover other issues. In a sense, the audience is telling reporters to walk and chew gum at the same time.
News consumers expect the media to cover a range of issues rather than ride hobby horses that feed reporters’ own interests. Sadly, as a Rasmussen Reports poll shows, the public believes the media are more intent in creating controversy than informing the public about issues. No wonder media credibility has declined so rapidly in the last decade.
The investigation into Russia’s meddling in American elections is, indeed, newsworthy. The story needs to be covered and followed closely. The agenda setting issue, however, is one of proportion. Networks can and should be able to focus on multiple major issues in the news cycle.
The major problem with the coverage of Russia has been that the coverage has been characterized by much speculation, but few hard facts. Anonymous sources are often cited and stories often begin with phrasing such as, “If proven…” Further, most of the coverage refers broadly to “meddling,” “interference,” and “collusion,” but with little particular definition of how those terms are operationalized or how the election process was actually altered.
A key matter to consider is what the news agenda might look like if the broadcast networks broadened their agenda-setting perspective. It might not seem jazzy to network producers, but all citizens use the nation’s roads and bridges, and those producers generally ignored Trump’s recent discussions of infrastructure improvements. Tax reform, trade, and healthcare are also kitchen table issues that have received insufficient attention in the news agenda, but were apparently critical at the ballot box.
News producers are always looking for the hot button topics that fuel ratings surges. They incorrectly conclude that issues important to the common man won’t win ratings battles. The challenge is for these producers to put infrastructure improvements or tax reform or jobs policies into a context that is understandable and viewable.
An old expression in the journalism industry encourages reporters to “make the important story interesting.” Professional broadcasters should be able to do that, and gather ratings, if they are willing to look beyond media feeding frenzies and simple-minded harping on their personal news priorities.
There is tremendous power in setting a news agenda that provides a conversation for democracy. Unfortunately, there is no magic equation for how it should be executed. It would help, however, if media decisions were made with the public interest in mind and an eye to covering the many issues that affect a wide range of citizens. For that to happen, news producers cooped up in network towers need to expend the effort to find out what stories Americans really want and need.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.