Why are journalists obsessed with Biden’s age? It’s because they’ve finally found an interesting election story


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Author: Jacob L. Nelson, Associate Professor of Communication, University of Utah

Original article: https://theconversation.com/why-are-journalists-obsessed-with-bidens-age-its-because-theyve-finally-found-an-interesting-election-story-234141


Since President Joe Biden’s disastrous presidential debate on June 27, 2024, election news coverage has focused on one question: Will he remain in the race?

This focus has been apparent to even the most casual of news consumers. Journalist Jennifer Schulze observed that, as of the morning of July 5, the New York Times had published nearly 200 pieces on Biden’s debate performance, comprising 142 news articles and 50 opinion pieces.

In comparison, the historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote that Trump was covered in only 92 stories during that same period.

“Although Trump has frequently slurred his words or trailed off while speaking and repeatedly fell asleep at his own criminal trial,” Richardson pointed out, “none of the pieces mentioned Trump’s mental fitness.”

As the flood of reporting continues on whether or not Biden will or should remain as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, members of the public have been asking a different question: How did all the journalists get on the same page so quickly?

The intensity with which journalists have been reporting on this story and, more importantly, the consistency with which journalists have been framing it, have led some to wonder if the news media as a whole is on a crusade to end Biden’s campaign.

Some think that journalists and newsroom managers are conspiring to bring Biden down as a means to increase the odds of defeating Donald Trump, whom they see as an existential threat to American democracy.

Others think journalists are unfairly focused on Biden’s age out of some warped sense of covering “both sides,” despite the fact that, from their perspective, Trump’s debate performance was filled with “lies, hyperbole, bigotry, ignorance, and fear mongering.”

There is a far simpler explanation for why news coverage surrounding Biden’s debate performance looks the way it does. Journalists want to do stories that the public will find valuable and that their audiences will find interesting.

The Biden story is both.

A man in a suit and tie talks in a high-ceilinged hallway to a large group of reporters recording him with their mobile phones.

Reporters eager for more comment on the Biden story mob Sen. Alex Padilla at the U.S. Capitol on July 8, 2024.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

News values, customs and sources

At a moment of deep distrust in journalism, there exists a widespread belief that journalists present the news in biased and overly sensational ways.

People who detect political bias in the news assume journalists are trying to push an unsuspecting public to embrace certain political views and reject others. Those who detect sensationalism in the news assume journalists – and news organization owners – care more about making money from audience attention than the accuracy or quality of their reporting.

Journalism skeptics who have been observing the coverage after the debate have consequently concluded that journalists are trying to turn the public against Biden so that he drops out of the race. Former journalism professor Dan Gillmor, for example, recently wrote that The New York Times “has been on a campaign to make sure Joe Biden won’t have another term in the White House.”

Yet studies of journalists’ values and practices tell a different story.

First, when it comes to reporting, journalists value sudden turns of events – also known as “timeliness.” They especially value those that unfold in a very public way – known as “spectacle.” The debate offered both. Until then, journalists and the public alike hadn’t regularly monitored or covered Biden’s age, other than a few notable outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal. The debate offered a live opportunity for the world to see firsthand why there have been concerns about electing an 81-year-old to a second term.

Second, journalists depend on sources for their reporting. Unsurprisingly, as soon as Biden’s halting debate performance began, political reporters began hearing from panicked insiders, who appear to have jump-started the “replacing Biden” discussion.

As a scholar who explores the relationship between journalism and the public, I believe these sources are venting to journalists as a way to keep the spotlight on this news story. That’s a major part of the reason for this coverage, which each day seems to bring with it fresh quotes, leaks and scoops about Biden’s age from people involved in Democratic Party politics.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and a reporter have a heated exchange over a Parkinson’s expert’s visiting the White House.

What the public wants vs. needs

Of course, journalists do not simply transcribe quotes and distribute them to the public. They and their editors decide whether – and how much – to cover a story.

As my own research has shown, journalists try to strike a balance between what the public “wants” and what the public “needs” – sometimes known within journalism as giving the audience their “vegetables” along with their candy.

Most journalists and their editors care deeply about producing valuable news that will galvanize the public around a cause and lead to a change in public policy. Why else would they work in such an unstable and poorly paid profession?

Yet journalists also assume that these “important” news stories are rarely going to be as popular as more entertaining fare.

The current Biden story is different.

Until now, interest in the presidential election has been conspicuously low. While subscriptions to The New York Times skyrocketed following Trump’s election in 2016, the public has been far less interested in following the news during this election cycle.

An April NBC News poll showed that, in 2024, interest in the presidential election had hit a nearly 20-year low.

The debate offered something that had been missing from the election so far: a sense of uncertainty. That’s because the story itself has everything journalists want. It’s interesting, timely and easily reported using various sources. As long as there are incremental developments to report on, then being interesting, timely and easily reported will keep a story in the news for a long time, as seen with the ongoing coverage surrounding the coronarivus pandemic. Plus, audiences are invested in it. And no one knows how it will turn out.

It’s a huge story

Until Biden drops out or it becomes clear that he will remain the party’s nominee, Americans will continue to be inundated with news coverage about everything from his campaigning to Democratic donors’ maneuvering to get him out or keep him in the raceto investigations into the extent to which Biden’s age has been affecting his performance as president so far.

Americans will also continue to see hand-wringing about this coverage, specifically that it comes at the expense of other coverage or that it runs the risk of affecting the very story it’s meant to illuminate.

As this unfolds, news consumers would all do well to keep in mind that this reporting is unlikely the result of a conspiracy among journalists and their managers to change the outcome of the election.

It is likelier the result of a consensus among political journalists and their sources that this is an important and fascinating story.

It’s certainly one I intend to follow.