What Did the Press Do Over Summer Vacation?

Now that Labor Day has passed, the kids are back at school writing essays about how they spent their summer vacations.  But why let the kids have all the fun? Why not take a look at what the New Jersey media did over the summer as they covered the 2009 race for Governor?

To do so, I conducted a rather unscientific survey using the Access World News database, which contains the full text content of more than 3,000 newspapers, including the dailies that cover the Garden State.   I compiled a list of some of the top issues in the state and ran a series of searches for New Jersey newspaper stories that included those topics as well as the name of one of the major party gubernatorial candidates.

The results showed that corruption and health care were the two topics mentioned most frequently in stories about the Governor’s campaign.  Over the past three months the words “Jon Corzine” and “corruption” appeared 257 times in the state’s daily newspapers; “Jon Corzine” and “health” appeared 256 times.  For Chris Christie, the top two topics were the same, but there was a much wider gap between them. Christie’s name could be found in 254 articles that contained the word “corruption” and 161 with the word “health”.

No real surprises here.  New Jersey made national headlines in July when over 40 people, including elected officials, community leaders and members of the clergy, were arrested on corruption charges.  Nor is it surprising that “corruption” would be a more frequently mentioned topic in stories including Christie.  The GOP candidate served as U.S. Attorney in New Jersey for seven years and built his reputation by cracking down on political corruption.  As for health care, it has been the top story in the nation for seven of the last eight weeks, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Next on the list was “education” with that word appearing in 173 stories that mentioned Corzine and 131 that included Christie.  Property taxes, which generally poll as the top issue in the state, were just the fourth most often-mentioned topic in this summer’s news reports on the Governor’s race.  A total of 103 stories contained “Jon Corzine” and “property tax”, 93 had Christie’s name and the term.

At the bottom of the list were “environment” (78 for Corzine, 57 for Christie) and “pension” (74 for Corzine, 54 for Christie).  Ironically, these are two issues that will have a long-term impact on New Jersey’s future.  In addition to choosing a Governor this November, New Jersey voters will decide if the state should bond for $400 million to preserve open space.  And this is one of a myriad of critical environmental issues on the horizon.  Meanwhile, the fiscal condition of the state’s public pension system is perhaps the most daunting long-term economic challenge confronting New Jersey.

As I indicated at the outset, this was less than a scientific survey.  The methodology has some obvious flaws.  For example, an article that describes “a festive environment” at a campaign rally would be included among the totals of stories mentioning the word “environment”, regardless of whether the rally was on environmental issues or some other matter.  Nevertheless, the numbers do provide some indication of the subjects that were in the news this summer.  Those numbers become more interesting when a few additional search terms are added to the equation.

For example, over the summer, Chris Christie’s driving record became a news item when news organizations reported details of motor vehicle incidents involving the GOP candidate.  The Access World News database showed that there were 149 stories in the state’s daily newspapers over the past three months that contained the words “Chris Christie” and “ticket”. That’s more than the number of stories that included Christie’s name and “education”, “property tax”, “environment” or “pension”.

For added measure, I searched for “Chris Christie” and “Michele Brown”, the former First Assistant U.S. Attorney who became the focus of news reports because Christie lent her $46,000 and failed to report the loan on financial disclosure and tax forms.  Brown’s name appeared in 73 news stories.  While this was considerably less than the number of articles on critical topics such as health care and political corruption, there actually were more stories on Chris Christie and Michele Brown than there were on Christie and the environment or the pension system.

Determining the issues that are most important for the public to know is a subjective process.   Indeed, the appropriateness of driving records and personal loans as campaign issues and news topics has been – and will continue to be – fiercely debated with legitimate arguments on both sides of the issue.  The more perplexing question, however, involves determining the news media’s role and responsibility.

An informed citizenry is an essential component of self-government systems, such as our nation’s democracy. Political economists consider it the news media’s role to ensure that the citizens in democratic societies are informed.  As journalist and author Ben Bagdikian explained in The New Media Monopoly, it is essential for the news media in a democratic society “to provide the balance that best serves rational decision making among the public at large.”

But sociologist Herbert Gans raises an interesting question about the media’s responsibility in democracy.  Even if the media performs its role admirably and presents the complete picture, what guarantee is there that citizens will listen?  “Merely supplying them with information does not make them into informed citizens,” Gans wrote in Democracy and the News.

To ensure that citizens do digest the material the media provides, Gans suggests an additional responsibility for journalists, namely incorporating motivational, rhetorical and educational techniques into their work.  That’s all well and good for a scholarly discussion, but in the real world, the news industry is hemorrhaging.  News organizations are struggling just to survive and continue doing what they have been doing.  Now is not the opportune time to take on new responsibilities, even if they are critical to our democratic system of governance.

The result is more responsibility for all of us. It is too easy to dismiss things and say, “The candidates aren’t talking about the issues that concern me” or “The press only cares about sensationalism and scandals so they sell more papers or attract more viewers.”  The truth is we live in a world in which news and information is more accessible than ever.  We all learned the name of the South Carolina congressman who disrupted President Obama’s speech on health care, but how many of us have taken the time to educate ourselves on the substantive issues involved in health care reform?

This year in New Jersey, not only are we choosing a Governor, we are charting a course for the future of our state.  Clearly, this is a decision we should make in an informed and educated manner – and no one is going to spoon-feed us the information we need.  To make intelligent, informed decisions, we need to become intelligent, informed voters.  That means obtaining as much information as possible – from as many different and divergent sources as possible – before making up our mind on an issue or a candidate.  Think about it.  We all go through a process like this when we buy a house, a car or a computer.  Surely, we should do the same when it comes time to select our next Governor.

Who knows?  Maybe if we start doing this, candidates will spend more time discussing the issues and we will see more news reports focused on topics such as property taxes, education and the environment instead of driving tickets and personal loans.

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