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News Reporters As
News Spinners

by Pat Hickey

ou may recall the day this spring when radio stations in Nevada blared in unison the startling fact that Republican gubernatorial candidate Aaron Russo had taken the lead in the polls over political rival Kenny Guinn. If true, it was good news for Russo and bad news for Guinn.

The problem is, the "poll" news directors were quoting was about as scientific as the study that once linked serial killers to the eating of ice cream.

The actual poll numbers came from the Las Vegas Review-Journal's website which routinely invites its online readers, "Tell us what you think." I personally obliged them and voted 18 times for one of the candidates!

The results can still be found on the website and show that on May 22, Russo had garnered 54.5 percent to Guinn's 38.5 percent. The same newspaper in conjunction with a local television station commissioned a more scientific poll just two weeks later that found Guinn favored by 57 percent of Republican voters and Russo by only 16 percent. So much for consistency.

Mind you, the fault is not with any newspaper doing an informal survey of its readers’ views. The problem lies with supposedly professional news directors who pick up on such suspect poll numbers and make them into headline news. As demonstrated by the recent CNN/Time report on nerve gas, many editors are not interested in letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

Is it because the editors and reporters who went with the story were duped? Or was it because they were just plain lazy and didn't check their facts? If you believe either, you may want to look further into that study of ice cream and the likes of Hannibal Lecter.

Why then did these totally unscientific poll results find their way into your car radio? The reason is, of course, it helped make a one-sided primary seem more like a real horse race. In other words, it got your attention, improved the station’s ratings, and generally contributed to the growing credibility gap that modem media is rightly earning for itself.

It's little wonder that recent studies like the one done at Vanderbilt University, Nothing Sacred: Journalism, Politics and the Public Trust in a Tell-All Age, reveals just how displeased the public is with current news coverage. The report concluded:

  • The public can't trust much of what they read and hear because they believe it is either speculation, allegation or spin.
  • The public thinks stories are often blown out of proportion.
  • The public thinks the press too often beats stories to death.

Consider the media's dubbing of Kenny Guinn the "anointed one," which accompanies most press reports on the Las Vegas gubernatorial candidate. It's a made-for-public-consumption label that adds intrigue to an otherwise uneventful campaign season. By making Guinn the "anointed one," Russo the "maverick," and Hammagren the "eccentric," the media turns state politics into an entertainment sideshow. And while the media's trivial pursuits make for better news ratings, they unfortunately also contribute to horrible voter turnout.

Twentieth century media guru Marshall McCluhan warned us about the consequences of communication media that manufacture reality with images of their own amoral making when he wrote, "The vital question today is not whether there will be life after death, but whether there was life before death and television?"

Freedom of the press is indispensable to American democracy. Freedom devoid of responsibility is the prescription for growing media abuse.

Those who report the news have been called the watchdogs of our society. The question then is, why have we let the watchdogs off their ethical leash? u

Pat Hickey is editor of  Nevada Journal.


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