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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Do you know what Mitt Romney ate for lunch the other day? Do you really care?

The New York Times is betting you do. In a story published last week, the Times pointed out that while Romney is notorious for strict diets, he and other presidential contenders are expected to sample local delicacies as they trudge along the campaign trail. That, of course, can mean downing some serious calories, which is amusing - but maybe it didn't merit an entire story.

Newspapers take great pride in illuminating the kooky face of modern politics, and during election season, the weirdness increases tenfold. But with the election less than a year away, trivial details seem to have taken center stage, which means the press isn't doing its job.

Instead of devoting themselves to candidates' issues and talking points, reporters seem distracted by the oddities encountered along the campaign trail. Remember John Edwards' ,400 haircut? Sure you do. But you may not know much about Edwards' poverty plan, which has been largely overshadowed by his pricey hairdo.

The haircut was meaningless, but the media were content to fixate on it for weeks. That's not just dumbing down politics - it's doing a disservice to potential voters.

Democrats aren't the only ones enduring scrutiny on their personal lives. Fred Thompson's busty wife seems to attract a lot more media attention than her husband's proposals do.

It's not surprising that Americans, not to mention college-aged ones, struggle to find incentives to vote when the stakes are downplayed in favor of frivolity.

Don't get me wrong - I'm all for humanizing a dry article. In Journalism Land, little details are considered prized commodities, as they can transform a typical campaign story into a more personal tale that hits close to home for readers.

Still, there is such a thing as too much. Just take a look at the numbers.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpartisan research organization that analyzes media trends, revealed that a whopping 63 percent of campaign coverage has focused on "political and tactical" aspects of the presidential race.

Meanwhile, just 1 percent of the coverage has examined candidates' public-service records. You read that right - 1 percent. Seems a little paltry, doesn't it?

Here's an equally puzzling statistic: A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, another nonpartisan research group, found that eight out of 10 Americans want to read more stories about the issues, not the sheer spectacle of the race. For some reason, though, not many major papers seem to be taking heed, which is a shame.

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After all, it's not only readers who suffer when journalists lavish too much attention in certain areas.

Ever noticed that Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani seem to land on the front page of national papers a lot more than, say, Bill Richardson and Ron Paul? You're not imagining it. During the first five months of the campaign, more than half of all election stories focused on just five candidates, according to another survey.

Keep in mind that in the earliest days of the race, there were 18 people vying for the country's top job. It doesn't seem fair, but newspapers argue that some contenders have an innate advantage over others. Not every presidential wannabe, after all, can call himself a former New York City mayor - not to mention a former first lady.

Still, whether they like it or not, journalists tend to sink into a vicious cycle. By printing stories and columns about the same few people, newspapers solidify those candidates' status as frontrunners in the race. But then again, how much can really be done to solve these problems? Newspapers are supposed to follow the newsmakers - not the long-shot candidates with little backing.

Still, Americans want to be educated about the issues and candidates - all of them - and journalists have a responsibility to do that. After all, when Election Day rolls around, voters probably won't be giving much thought to Mitt Romney's penchant for turkey sandwiches.

Lyndsey Lewis is a journalism junior. She is the editor of the Alligator.

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