Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Man Bites Dog

Steve Benen makes an interesting observation:
Just a few days ago, Paul Krugman had an interesting item on his blog on the media’s coverage of the presidential campaign as the dominant story shifts from a heated primary race to the general election. When the focus was on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it was in the media’s interest to exaggerate differences between two candidates who agree on almost everything. With the focus shifting to Obama and John McCain, it should make the media’s job easier — there are, as Krugman noted, “stark differences on issues between the candidates.”

I assumed that Obama and McCain are so different — personally, ideologically, professionally, temperamentally — the media just can’t screw this up.

I stand corrected. The LA Times ran an editorial the other day, noting that we “might be surprised at the breadth of issues on which they largely agree.”

I wonder if this might be a manifestation of the "man bites dog" rule. A story that fits preconceptions ("dog bites man") doesn't raise any interest and a story that doesn't raise any interest is a story that is quickly forgotten (and doesn't help advance the writer's career). However, a story that doesn't fit preconceptions ("man bites dog") is interesting and an interesting story is one that people won't quickly forget (and will advance the writer's career).

A story about how two Democratic candidates agree is boring. A story about how they disagree is interesting. On the other hand, a story about how a Democrat and a Republican disagree is similarly boring. But a story about how they agree is similarly interesting.

The problem comes when we compare the coverage of the Dem vs. Dem race with the Dem vs. Repub race. When we do this it suddenly looks like Dems disagree with each other more than they disagree with their eventual Republican opponent.

Journalists who don't appreciate this dynamic do us no service with their reporting, even though they may not be intentionally trying to distort the picture of reality.

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