'Objective' Campaign Stories Are Boring When They're Possible at All

Even newspapers can no longer take a "just the facts" approach to political coverage and retain readers. Why not embrace that reality?

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Reflecting on the role that journalists play in politics, Will Wilkinson points out that despite the distinction drawn at many traditional press outlets between reporters and commentators, campaign reporting is rarely the mere presentation facts. As evidence, he offers two hypothetical descriptions of the most recent GOP primary contests and the ongoing race for the nomination.

Example one:

Mitt Romney now limps on toward Super Tuesday after a bloody fight and lackluster victory in his native Michigan.

Example two:

After taking Arizona in a walk, and improving on his 2008 numbers in a solid Michigan win, the Romney campaign is back on top with impressive momentum heading into Super Tuesday.

There are facts in there. An unaffected way to put them might be, "Mitt Romney won the Arizona Republican primary by a wide margin, received more votes but the same number of delegates as Rick Santorum in Michigan, and hasn't yet accrued enough delegates to win the nomination as Super Tuesday approaches." There are a few reasons those aren't the sorts of sentences typically seen in political journalism. 1) They're boring. 2) All the information in them could be communicated more succinctly in a simple graphic. 3) Publications employ journalists -- that's their comparative advantage -- and the "just the facts" account doesn't require any on the ground fact gathering, or long term observation of politics, or valuable insight, or ability to turn an enjoyable phrase. 

Now consider this actual news article by Michael D. Shear of the New York Times:

Having dodged political calamity with a victory on Tuesday night in his home state of Michigan, Mitt Romney quickly shifted his attention to Ohio on Wednesday morning as his chief rival vowed an aggressive, nationwide fight for the Republican nomination in the weeks ahead.

And a hypothetical alternative that passes the plausibility test:

After narrowly depriving his chief rival of victory in one state Tuesday and easily besting him in another, Mitt Romney took advantage of his formidable organization and war chest Wednesday by hitting the ground running in Ohio, one of several Super Tuesday states into which he'll pour resources. His chief rival, Rick Santorum, will continue to fight for the nomination in the weeks ahead, but his substantial organizational disadvantage in Ohio and relative dearth of funds will likely prevent him from mounting a nationwide fight for the Republican nomination.

My re-write isn't intended as a criticism of the perfectly adequate passage that Shear wrote, one that is even more nuanced in the context of his article. But if the journalist's latitude in interpretation and emphasis is this wide -- and it must be if campaign reporting is to go beyond the most basic facts -- why not part with the misleading trappings of "objectivity," be more upfront about the fact that judgments being offered, and grant newspaper political journalists the additional freedom they need if readers are to benefit from the totality of their judgment and experience?

I thought our own Molly Ball's coverage of the Michigan and Arizona races deftly combined facts, context, and subjective but smart analysis that didn't masquerade as anything more. The freedom to present that sort of coverage explains why I've gravitated toward journalists like Josh Green, Ryan Lizza, Dave Weigel, James Fallows, John Heilemann, Andrew Ferguson, John Dickerson, and assorted others.

Particularly when these journalists write at feature or book length (as when newspaper reporters do the same), the reader becomes aware that they are flesh and blood humans whose pieces are shaped by past events that they've witnessed, their unique network of sources, their backgrounds and life experiences -- all that and more shapes the final product. The process is least transparent in straight newspaper copy, though newspapers have implicitly conceded that they can't survive if their copy is held to the strictest "just the facts" standard. 

With that concession made, why not go the rest of the way?

Flickr user Oneups

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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