Newspapers won't say who won a debate. They should.
In their desire to be fair, many of the media don't tell readers much of anything.
Some time in the past month, the Michigan gubernatorial race took a turn. The incumbent, Democrat Jennifer Granholm, went from a slim lead over her opponent, Republican Dick DeVos, to a fairly substantial 8-point or 9-point gap.
The race is by no means over, but something pushed voters toward Ms. Granholm. As they do in many elections, voters on the fence fell one way. Why? Well, that's always the question.
In this case, a few things happened during Granholm's charge. The national poll numbers for Republicans went south, perhaps dragging Mr. DeVos down. The Detroit Tigers starting winning playoff games, buoying spirits, which helps an incumbent such as Granholm. Oh yes, and there were debates.
If one read the newspaper coverage of the debates, at least in the largest two papers in this state, they would seem to merit only a passing mention as a possible cause of DeVos's declining fortunes.
"Charges fly as foes clash in the 1st round," read the not-exactly-earth-shaking headline of the Detroit Free Press that followed the first debate Oct. 2, accompanied by the subhead, "Granholm: Challenger used wealth to advance his own cause; DeVos: Governor has been unable to fix state's economic woes." The rival Detroit News featured the same kind of noncommittal report, "Debate: Nasty, nasty," coupled with, "Granholm, DeVos clash on jobs, taxes, investments." The articles were just as circumspect.
That's why it was odd to turn on the TV here after the second gubernatorial debate and see a group of political reporters sitting around a table and offering a very different set of assessments. DeVos did better in the second debate after he "really took a licking in that first debate because of a lackluster performance," said one panel member. Another said DeVos had "nowhere to go but up" after the first debate, which could have been called "the weakest performance by a gubernatorial candidate in four decades." A third said DeVos "completely fell apart" during the first debate.
These were not political partisans, but reporters and analysts who had seen both contests. Analyses like those make it fairly easy to see what might have turned the race against DeVos. There probably haven't been a lot of polls measuring how candidates do after they "completely fall apart" on TV, but one would guess the numbers aren't good.
So why did the newspaper coverage of the event not reflect those assessments? The answer is bigger than the coverage of one race or one debate in Michigan.
In their desire to be seen as fair and unbiased, many of the mainstream news media have lapsed into not telling their audiences much of anything – especially in the realm of politics, and particularly when it comes to debates. Debate stories almost always end up fitting into the well-known and well-worn template of "candidates clash," followed by a few paragraphs of allegations and responses from each. The pieces wind up reading like abridged transcripts, accented with a little bit of color.
What's missing is what the voters crave – context. Some stories try to fill the void by asking supporters of each candidate for their spin. But that hardly does the job. Spinners never seriously criticize their candidate.
This is not to say every debate story should begin with a lead that quickly labels a winner and loser. Often debates really are draws in which "candidates exchange blows," but many times, particu- larly in more-local, less-polished campaigns, they are not. And in those stories there needs to be some indication of the general feeling in the auditorium. The point of a debate story, or any story for that matter, is to give readers a sense of what happened.
Newspapers sometimes put that kind of analysis on their editorial page, but when they do, their assessment is colored as simple opinion – discounted by one side or the other. A serious evaluation is more than that. It uses facts and description to explain the "why" of something. In the end, despite all the worries about bias, that's what news consumers want. If the media don't do a better job of explaining the "why," they will continue to lose readers and viewers.
After all, the Detroit papers may have been uncomfortable explaining what happened in that first gubernatorial debate, but the polls seemed to show that people didn't have a difficult time making up their minds. It was obvious to many of them. And if newspapers can't explain to you what's obvious, why bother paying attention to them at all?
• Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at Dante Chinni.