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Editorial: Speculation trumps the news

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | DECEMBER 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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The time has arrived for the media to engage in their customary reckless guesswork about the 2016 presidential election.

Speculation for 2016 started emerging in March 2012 (before the Republican primaries were even over) when the Washington Post put out its Sweet 2016 bracket for future presidential candidates.

Then, two days after President Obama won the 2012 election, Politico published an article titled “2016 election: Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush?” Even the New York Times jumped on the great speculative bandwagon later in November 2012.

If even the premier media outlets in the nation are susceptible to this brand of extremely premature gossip, perhaps it only follows that the Des Moines Register included which possible Republican and Democratic presidential candidates Iowans favored when it published the results of the latest Iowa Poll on Dec. 14.

Granted, the media are usually early to cover the next presidential race, but it’s about as early as retailers setting up Christmas decorations a week before Thanksgiving. The media’s coverage of the 2016 presidential election, however, is on par with preparing for the next holiday season on Dec. 26.
It may not be so bad if pundits were good at predicting, but, especially this far from 2016, most prognosticating will fall flat.

This is partly because the incentives encourage pundits to make outlandish predictions, so if they’re wrong, they pretend it didn’t happen and if they’re right, they tell everyone and make a boatload of money from book deals and guest appearances on TV.

The other problem is that the media are predicting three years into the future. Few would have seriously suggested in 2005 that a junior senator from Illinois named Barack Obama would beat Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries and go on to win the presidency. John McCain was largely ignored by the media early on in the 2008 Republican primaries until he started winning left and right.

It’s hard to say why rampant speculation has become so prominent among the mainstream press, but it’s probably related to the media’s traditional business model has been annihilated and shows few signs of improving. This mainly came to a head during the recession when circulation and ad revenue fell off a cliff. As a result, budgetary cuts had to be made.

The Pew Research Center reports that in 2000, there were approximately 56,000 newsroom employees. Since then, that number has fallen by more than 30 percent to a 35-year low of fewer than 40,000.

CNN, which sells itself on reporting in-depth stories has gone from devoting half its evening programming to edited packages in 2007 to just one-fourth in 2013. Across cable networks, live reporting has fallen by a third, replaced with cheaper interview segments.

Hard-news stories are expensive, and the media struggle to gather the resources to pay for them. News consumers have also noticed declining quality. Pew found that one-third of Americans have abandoned a news outlet because it “no longer serves their needs.” Around half of those who stopped paying attention to a media source cited a decline in quality content.

Perhaps speculation on the 2016 presidential election is a desperate attempt to get more attention, and thus ad revenue, cheaply. Journalists and editors have to understand that reckless speculation is destroying their credibility with the public, and in a time of crisis for the media, that is the last thing they need.


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