The News Tip: Some Of Us Are Just Political Visitors

Jan 8, 2012
Originally published on January 8, 2012 7:55 am

With election season in full swing now, the sheer amount of media coverage can be daunting to anyone trying to follow the races.

For the press covering politics, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has this reminder: Most people are visitors to the land of political obsession, not full-time residents.

Folkenflik tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin that much of the campaign coverage "assumes that everybody is up to date on real minutiae."

Some people don't have the time to keep up with minor — or even major — developments.

"If you go abroad, you know you want a good tour guide who tells you where the locals go for a beer or where to watch the sunset," Folkenflik says, "but you don't want somebody who's going to tell you what the fights are about local parking ordinances."

At times, the magnitude of events can be blown out of proportion. For those who want the inside-baseball perspective, blogs and Twitter feeds abound. Still, Folkenflik says the press should be aware of their emphasis and focus.

"If you're going to talk about how much money a candidate raises, it's really important to say, 'Well, what do you do with that money? Who was it raised from and what is it going to be used for?'" he says.

During this election cycle in particular, the media audience is exposed to a lot of information. Folkenflik says with that comes faster and more intense reporting, so journalists can more easily lose sight of which developments are most important.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With election season in full swing now, the sheer amount of media coverage can be daunting to anyone who's trying to follow the races. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us on many Sundays for what we call The News Tip, a look at how the press handles the news. Welcome, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Hey. So, tell us, what is the tip this week?

FOLKENFLIK: This week, it's really a tip for journalists. And it's - keep one thing in mind - that most people are visitors to the land of political obsession, not full-time residents.

MARTIN: OK. Visitors to the land of political obsession, not full-time residents - what does that really mean?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, the journalistic pack has covered this pre-presidential race for about a year now. And if you watch on TV, if you read in print or online, a lot of the time, coverage assumes that everybody is up to date on real minutiae, really picayune elements. I want to play one clip. It's from John King on CNN talking to a local party official in Iowa on caucus night. It gives you a little flavor and feel for how this works.

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FOLKENFLIK: OK. So, at a certain point...

MARTIN: OK, yeah, you lost me, like, right from the beginning on that.

FOLKENFLIK: Right. Well, it's almost like listening to dolphins talk to each other, right? I mean, John King is a terrific political journalist but people have lives. They've got kids, they've got jobs and it's hard for them to track every little development. Sometimes it's hard for them to track even a lot of the big ones. If you want to go abroad, you know, you want a good tour guide who tells you where the locals go for a beer or where to watch the sunset. But you don't want somebody who's going to tell you what the fights are about local parking ordinances. In this case, the press loses sight at the comparative magnitude of events. For example, if you think about the Iowa caucuses, you forget the fact that no delegates were at stake in that very first political contest.

MARTIN: Not to harp on John King, but he is a political journalist. This is what he knows, and a lot of people turn to him to get that inside baseball look. And we live in a world where there are so many options for media that we can consume. Isn't there an audience for this kind of political minutiae?

FOLKENFLIK: To me, it's more a question of emphasis and focus. People are going to dip in. People don't just look at the New York Times or the Washington Post. They'll look at the 538 blog or The Fix at the Post. 538, a New York Times blog that's named, of course, for the number of votes in the Electoral College. And not only will they turn to those blogs, they'll turn to the Twitter feeds of the people behind them, so they can get things in real-time as they're playing out almost as if the journalists themselves experience it. And all of that is fine. But to me there's a question of emphasis and focus, you know. If you're going to talk about how much money a candidate raises, it's really important to say, well, what do you do with that money? Who was it raised from and what is going to be used for?

MARTIN: Is this new at all? Have you noticed a difference this election season in kind of the depths of this coverage or the details that people are drilling down into?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think there is a lot of information. I think also that means there's been an acceleration of reporting, there's an intensity of reporting, there's sort of a losing of calibrating the decimals on what new development is most important. Does it matter if the wife of a councilman in Dublin, New Hampshire endorsed one candidate over another? We're not always given a sense of how important each development really is.

MARTIN: OK. So we're clear, give us that tip one more time, David.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I'm asking the political press pack - treat the audience like an intelligent visitor to a foreign land, not full-time residents of this special place of political obsession.

MARTIN: And it is a special place. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik with our news tip. Thanks so much, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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MARTIN: If you want to drop us a news tip, visit NPR.org/TheNewsTip - all one word. You can also follow David on Twitter @DavidFolkenflik.

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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.