Breaking News breeds Broken Discourse

Internet | Building/Consensus
The old idiom about that news “breaks” has on occasion led observers of the media scene to wonder whether it has any use in its broken state. “…We fix it” announces the tagline Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. (Similarly, NPR had a recent print ad campaign about “putting it back together”) Here’s an account of some of this week’s of “breaking news”, which on the face of it, does not look very broken:

  1. Our Lt. Governor, Kerry Healey, apparently has little to do, so on Tuesday she called a press conference and asked for Senator John Kerry to resign for the remainder of the Presidential campaign “so that we can fill that office with someone who is 100 percent devoted to the job of representing the people of Massachusetts.”
  2. The Associated Press ran quick story, publishing it around 1pm, as I remember. The story was written so quickly that “a spokesman for the Kerry campaign did not immediately return calls seeking comment.”

Now here’s where things get broken. A number of websites immediately pick up the story. Not only blogs, but the hometown paper’s website–— runs it as a headline for the remainder of the day. (The AP’s Jennifer Peter would eventually file a more complete story at 11:21 ET, with comment from John Kerry, and the Globe would run an article the next day). Along with the quick piece in the afternoon, ran a poll to ask people, yes/no, whether Kerry should resign.

Now, despite the exhortation from the National Council on Public Polls that online polls is a “misuse of the term”, seemingly respectable online publications still use them. And there is a lack of appreciation that online polls may still have an effect on public opinion. When I checked in the middle of the day, I saw that the votes for yes/no were running around 50-50. So consider a reader who clicks to vote, finds that 50% of whomever agrees with him, and thus has no need to return to any followup of the story.

In my article In Defense of Internet Polls I proposed that they be strengthened and recognized as part of the news process. In this case, the poll should have waited a day for the full story to be reported. It also should have avoided the simple yes/no question and instead provided some more context on the issue. Here’s two main questions which should have been present in the poll as well:

  • Should this be applied to all candidates for office– why not for Governor Bush in 2000 (as State Democratic Party chairman Philip Johnston point out in the Globe article) or even President Bush in 2004 (as a clever letter-writer proposed the following day). Senator Bob Dole may have resigned in 1996– he was ready to retire anyhow– but Senator John F. Kennedy did not in 1960.
  • Is it fair to criticize a legislator for missing a vote when it would not have made a difference? Healey’s original complaints focused on missed votes on banning child pornography and extending unemployment benefits. The former was not in any danger of failing, but the latter appeared to be a close vote. After Governor Mitt Romney pressed the issue again on Friday, Kerry campaign spokesman Michael Meehan was ready: “If the governor really cared about getting it done he could pick up the phone and call up his candidate George Bush and have him get it done.” After all, 12 of 51 Republicans voted for the bill– adding to 47 Democratic votes, this was 1 vote short of the 60 votes needed to approve amendments. Such legislative maneuvers are commonplace by the party in the majority. Those particular to the unemployment benefits extension have been tracked diligently by the National Employment Law Project,

But it was too late to invoke this serious debate. The original AP story was run, and then spread, uninformed debates carried on, and high level of partisanship carried in the day in online forums. All because someone had to break the news.