Stories need characters and so personalities become important in television news and celebrities are created. The focus on individuals, also means that the way that individual examples and actions fit into a broader social context is left out. David Ricci in his book on The Transformation of American Politics says:
In the case of politics, it is usually a tale of individuals... where one dramatis persona struggles against another for power and personal gain. Such ‘horse race’ journalism tends to slight the importance of political parties and social issues because, after all, they are less exciting, more difficult to film, and almost impossible to describe without longer verbal expositions than television ordinarily cares to provide.
Talk show campaign spots have revealed that the questions that ordinary callers ask of politicians are quite different from those asked by reporters. Citizens are interested in policies and how they will be affected by them whereas reporters want to know about political strategies and power plays.
In fact media coverage of politics tends to focus on strategies rather than issues and avoid discussion of policies which would require journalists having to actually read legislation and analyse its implications. “Since each question tends to be framed around the never-ending battles between the White House and Congress,” writes Kurtz, “the debate is circumscribed in a way that excludes unorthodox or unpopular notions.”
This is by no means a unique feature of US politics. Writing in the British magazine New Statesman & Society Steven Barnett observes: “It is now universally acknowledged that the conduct of politics is increasingly dictated by modern techniques of publicity and media exploitation. Proper political dialogue takes second place to the sharpness of the suit, the succinctness of the sound-bite, the control of interviews and the use of advertising techniques.”
Similarly, Warwick Beutler, a former political reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ABC, says that until the mid 1980s journalists focused much more on the substance of parliamentary bills but now journalists report the power struggles. Former Labor MP Fred Daly agrees, saying that most media coverage concentrates on the mistakes and manoeuvres of politicians rather than the parliamentary debate.
James Fallows, the Washington editor of The Atlantic Monthly, says in his book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine Democracy that in their efforts to entertain, journalists have been: “Concentrating on conflict and spectacle, building up celebrities and tearing them down, presenting a crisis or issue with the volume turned all the way up, only to drop that issue and turn to the next emergency.”