Today’s political candidates campaign in a world in which news and information travels with unprecedented speed and arrives on smartphones that we carry in our pockets.
But modern technology has not produced a more informed and educated electorate. In fact, when New Jersey voters go to the polls on Nov. 5 to choose a candidate for governor, they may be less prepared to make that decision than they were four years ago.
For starters, the size of newsroom staffs at news outlets covering the state has decreased through buyouts, layoffs and other cutbacks. At the same time, the growth of the Internet has altered the manner in which news is gathered, reported and disseminated, placing new demands on depleted news staffs. Neither of these developments is unique to New Jersey, but our experience in the Garden State may provide a lesson for the rest of the nation. Because we are the most densely populated state in the country, public policy issues often emerge here first – and we are among the first to react and respond to them.
In September, I completed a study of the media coverage of New Jersey’s 2005 and 2009 gubernatorial elections. The media landscape changed dramatically during this four-year period. Substantial reductions in personnel and resources weakened traditional news outlets while the Internet fostered new platforms for the delivery of news and information. In 2005, YouTube was in its infancy, the majority of people on Facebook were students, and Twitter did not yet exist. By 2009, all three were commonly used communication tools.
To learn how these developments affected news coverage in New Jersey, I analyzed the content of nearly 1,000 news reports from the two elections and interviewed 45 individuals involved in the campaigns – media consultants, political strategists, journalists, pundits and others.
The results of the research paint a bleak picture. With few exceptions, the interviewees agreed that the quality of coverage declined between the 2005 and 2009 gubernatorial elections – a pattern that they expect to continue this year. In 2009, the coverage was shallower, with a greater focus on personalities than issues, leaving voters less informed on the public policy matters confronting the state and the candidate best qualified to address them.
The interviewees attributed the changes to the economy and the Internet. Because of fiscal constraints, news staffs are smaller and less experienced, and the Internet has placed increased demands on journalists. In addition to their normal writing and reporting responsibilities, journalists now need to tweet, blog and update stories throughout the day.
But if this year’s voters are indeed less informed and educated, the media is not entirely to blame. The citizenry also bears responsibility.
In many ways, the Internet has made our lives more convenient, but it also requires that we work harder. For example, we make airline and hotel reservations ourselves, but we have to research prices, availability and other items that once were provided to us by travel agents and hotel call centers. There is a parallel in how we obtain news and information. All of the information we need no longer arrives on our doorstep in one convenient package every morning. Instead, it has become our responsibility to search through the vast array of information sources available today and pull out the facts we need to make informed, educated decisions.
We are indeed at a watershed moment for journalism and democracy. The new media landscape requires a greater commitment from citizens. Becoming an informed and educated voter in the 21st Century is not a passive activity. We need to look beyond the media for the information we need. We must search through the plethora of material available online and decide what is credible and what is not and what is valuable and what is not. Only then can we become educated citizens and fulfill our role in the democratic process.
# # #
To see how this blog post appeared in other publications and postings, click on the links below: