The 5 most annoying things about political journalism (including this list)

Photo by Justin Hoch

Photo by Justin Hoch

By Andrew Scoggin

Congress is on its spring break, meaning the Washington news machine is currently re-greasing its wheels.

It’s all a massive operation — political journalism often dominates the front page, the lead story on the nightly news and countless Twitter feeds. Personally, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. But a whole lot of other people would.

See, some would rather just never hear anything about Congress or immigration or anything like that. It’s annoying, they’d say, all the partisan bickering and grandstanding. Well, they’re right.

For its virtues, there’s an awful lot wrong with political journalism. Everyone is always yelling, including readers. And if the buzzwords and incessant tweets drive readers away, we’ve got lists to reel them back in.

So in the spirit of that last bit, below is a list of the biggest annoyances found in political journalism. Should any other political journalists happen upon it, don’t take it personally. I’m culpable for doing, encouraging or covering much of the following, too.

1. Pundits

People associate punditry with political journalism these days as much as they do “All the President’s Men.” Instead of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, now we’ve got Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow and Rush Limbaugh.

This is not to discount the value of all cable news or commentary — each form of media and expression has its place. But the role of pundits has become greatly outsized, far too big for its britches.

For some insight, take a look at these three videos:

Those first two provide prime examples of what all the yelling is about. Funny, maybe, in an accidental way. But where’s the news value?

The third video, featuring Jon Stewart on “Crossfire” in 2004, encapsulates the argument against punditry. Stewart said “Crossfire” was “hurting America” with its dichotomic presentation of the news. Facts, after all, exist in one world, not two separate ones.

Three months later, “Crossfire” was gone. Jon Stewart is still around today, but then again, so are a lot of pundits.

Somebody must like to watch people like O’Reilly talk and talk, seeing as they’re still on the air. If these shows are entertaining to viewers, fine. But don’t put on the veneer of news.

Any informative value these pundits give is inherent one-sided. They present their point of view and shout down anyone who dares to disagree. It has created a culture that says, if you talk loud and pound your chest like an ape, you must be very smart and very correct.

I suppose at least they’re somewhat transparent about viewpoints (Fox’s “Fair and Balanced” need not apply). We’re past the days wherein newspaper editorial boards held tremendous influence ideologically, whether in determining news coverage or endorsing candidates. But it’s hard not to imagine society being better off without demagogues like Glenn Beck.

Besides, as Nate Silver showed us during the 2012 election, these pundits’ “expertise” might be outdated.

2. Commenters

No, dear readers, you are not immune to the plagues of political journalism. This is a two-way street — we write, you read (or at least we hope you do). And because of the miracles of the Internet, you get to make your voice heard at the bottom of virtually story.

The free exchange of witty banter and well-made points! How glorious!

Not. When is the last time you scrolled to the comments section of any political story and didn’t immediately regret it? What could have been a great accomplishment of free speech has instead devolved into lowest-common denominator material. Racism, sexism, rudeness, unpleasantness and downright nastiness at their finest. And even with the advent of non-anonymous Facebook comments, this hasn’t stopped.

Here’s a template of basically any comment thread below a politics story on a major news website:

  • ElitismRocks says: That’s entirely incorrect. Don’t you know anything? Something something uneducated fools something something East Coast elitism.
  • SpamBoT5000 says: My friend Frank earned $51123 last week without even getting out of bed! And he got a new awesome pare of Jordens!!! Click here!!: http://…..

Anyway, you get the point. To avoid comments from the cesspool of society, steer clear of the following topics:

  • immigration
  • abortion
  • same-sex marriage
  • race
  • religion
  • Obama
  • Democrats
  • Republicans
  • the economy
  • the Middle East
  • China
  • anything important … except maybe puppies

3. Buzzwords

How many times did you jam a pencil through your eardrum when you heard the phrase “fiscal cliff?” Did reading that sound like nails on a chalkboard in your head? Believe me, it hurt just to type it.

Media types, whether in or on the news, have a way of “buzzifying” (see what I did there?) complicated issues into easily digestible sound bites. Think “fiscal cliff,” “sequestration” or “tough economic times.”

Sometimes it’s good to know what someone is talking about without waiting 30 seconds. But why use “sequestration” when “automatic spending cuts” will do just fine?

So at best, it’s an annoying practice. But it might also be turning people away from the news, if recent coverage of the sequester is any indication. Only one in four respondents in a recent poll said they were following the news about it closely, despite a majority who said the cuts would have a “major effect” on the economy.

This is a “boy who cried wolf” situation — if we keep coining terms to make things sound important, nobody pays attention when something actually important comes around.

4. Twitter

I use Twitter a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Like check it 10 to 15 times a day a lot.

But do I like it? Does obsessively checking for news updates, anything to feed my desperate need for information, make my life better and me happier?

True, Twitter is where I first learned of Osama bin Laden’s death and the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare (thanks for nothing, CNN). It has its function, but it might be doing more harm than good.

Even today, old-fashioned media have a distinct advantage over newfangled technology. If a story hits the front page of a newspaper, it means it’s pretty damn important. Journalists can set the agenda.

But on Twitter, messages get lost in the shuffle. Everything looks just like everything else.

Even within one account, like, say, @NYTimes, no story is given prominence over any other story. How am I to know something is important if I know nothing about it or it’s presented without context?

Maybe the only like people like more than lists. (Photo by Quinn Dombrowski)

Maybe the only like people like more than lists. (Photo by Quinn Dombrowski)

5. Lists

Lists, you say? We know nothing of the sort (wink wink).

I’ll be honest here — it’s a miracle if you’ve read anything aside from the bolded text. Lists are the perfect form of journalism for today’s on-the-go, can’t-be-bothered-to-read consumer. There’s good reason lists are often the top posts at news websites, and why outlets like BuzzFeed and Bleacher Report have thrived. Tl;dr, amirite?

But lists are not only for the lazy reader — they’re for lazy journalists, too. Why write and report original stories when aggregation and GIFs of cats will do just fine?

This isn’t just about the individual journalists. In an industry where Web hits matter more than word counts, journalistic outlets are pushed to create content that drives traffic (which is why Tim Tebow and Kim Kardashian are everywhere, despite never actually doing anything).

Lists are a win-win: Readers love easily digestible content, and journalists don’t have to do much work to put them together. It’s just that we all could do something better or more important with our time.

And on that note, I think I’ll do some repenting.

Have your own gripes about political journalism? Share them in the comments below, save for you keyboard smashers out there.

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Posted by on April 4, 2013. Filed under Media,Recent News,Top News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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