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

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.

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. Läs mer…

Journalism’s trust problem is about money, not politics

Journalism faces a credibility crisis. Only 32% of Americans report having “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in news reporting – a historical low.

Journalists generally assume that their lack of credibility is a result of what people believe to be reporters’ and editors’ political bias. So they believe the key to improving public trust is to banish any traces of political bias from their reporting.

That explains why newsroom leaders routinely advocate for maintaining “objectivity” as a journalistic value and admonish journalists for sharing their own opinions on social media.

The underlying assumption is straightforward: News organizations are struggling to maintain public trust because journalists keep giving people reasons to distrust the people who bring them the news. Newsroom managers appear to believe that if the public perceives their journalists as politically neutral, objectively minded reporters, they will be more likely to trust – and perhaps even pay for – the journalism they produce.

Yet, a study I recently published with journalism scholars Seth Lewis and Brent Cowley in Journalism, a scholarly publication, suggests this path of distrust stems from an entirely different problem.

Drawing on 34 Zoom-based interviews with adults representing a cross-section of age, political leaning, socioeconomic status and gender, we found that people’s distrust of journalism does not stem from fears of ideological brainwashing. Instead, it stems from assumptions that the news industry as a whole values profits above truth or public service.

The Americans we interviewed believe that news organizations report the news inaccurately not because they want to persuade their audiences to support specific political ideologies, candidates or causes, but rather because they simply want to generate larger audiences — and therefore larger profits.

A survey shows that people think news organizations report the news inaccurately to get larger audiences — and make more money.
Mensent Photography/Getty Images

Commercial interests undermine trust

The business of journalism depends primarily on audience attention. News organizations make money from this attention indirectly, by profiting off the advertisements – historically print and broadcast, now increasingly digital – that accompany news stories. They also monetize this attention directly, by charging audiences for subscriptions to their offerings.

Many news organizations pursue revenue models that combine both of these approaches, despite serious concerns about the likelihood of either leading to financial stability.

Although news organizations depend on revenue to survive, journalism as a profession has long maintained a “firewall” between its editorial decisions and business interests. One of journalism’s long-standing values is that journalists should cover whatever they want without worrying about the financial implications for their news organization. NPR’s Ethics Handbook, for example, states that “the purpose of our firewall is to hold in check the influence our funders have over our journalism.”

What does this look like in practice? It means that journalists at the Washington Post should, according to these principles, feel encouraged to pursue investigative reporting into Amazon despite the fact that the newspaper is owned by Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos.

While the effectiveness of this firewall in the real world is far from assured, its existence as a principle within the profession suggests that many working journalists pride themselves on following the story wherever it leads, regardless of its financial ramifications for their organization.

Yet despite the importance of this principle to journalists, the people we interviewed seemed unaware of its importance – indeed, its very existence.

Bias toward profits

The people we spoke with tended to assume that news organizations made money primarily through advertising instead of also from subscribers. That led many to believe that news organizations are pressured to pursue large audiences so that they can generate more advertising revenue.

Consequently, many of the people interviewed described journalists as being enlisted in an ongoing, never-ending struggle to capture public attention in an incredibly crowded media environment.

“If you don’t get a certain number of views, you’re not making enough money,” said one of our interviewees, “and then that doesn’t end well for the company.”

People we spoke with tended to agree that journalism is biased, and assumed that such bias exists for profit-oriented rather than strictly ideologically oriented reasons. Some see a convergence in these reasons.

“[Journalists] get money from various support groups that want to see a particular agenda pushed, like George Soros,” said another interviewee. “It’s profits over journalism and over truth.”

Others we spoke with understood that some news organizations depend primarily on their audiences for financial support in the form of subscriptions, donations or memberships. Although these interviewees saw news organizations’ means of generating revenue differently from those who assumed that the money mostly came from advertising, they still described deep distrust toward the news that stemmed from concerns about the news industry’s commercial interests.

“That’s how they make money,” one person said about subscriptions. “They want to entice you with a different version of the news that is not, I personally believe, overall going to be accurate. They get you to pay for that and – poof – you’re a sucker.”

Misplaced concern about bias

In light of these findings, it appears that journalists’ concerns that they must defend themselves against accusations of ideological bias might be misplaced.

Many news organizations have pursued efforts at transparency as an overarching approach to earning public trust, with the implicit goal being to demonstrate that they are doing their work with integrity and free from any ideological bias.

Since 2020, for example, The New York Times has maintained a “Behind the Journalism” page that describes how the newspaper’s reporters and editors approach everything, from when they use anonymous sources to how they confirm breaking crime news and how they are covering the Israel-Hamas War. The Washington Post similarly began maintaining a “Behind the Story” page in 2022.

Yet these displays do not address the chief cause for concern among the people we interviewed: the influence of profit-chasing on journalistic work.

Leslie Moonves, then-chairman of CBS, said the network’s massive 2016 coverage of candidate Donald Trump ‘may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. … The money’s rolling in.’
David Livingston/Getty Images

Instead of worrying quite so much about perceptions of journalists’ political biases, it might be more beneficial for newsroom managers to shift their energies to pushing back against perceptions of economic bias.

Perhaps a more effective demonstration of transparency would focus less on how journalists do their jobs and more on how news organizations’ financial concerns are kept separate from evaluations of journalists’ work.

Cable news as a stand-in

The people we interviewed also often appeared to conflate television news with other forms of news production, such as print, digital and radio. And there is ample evidence that television news managers do indeed appear to privilege profits over journalistic integrity.

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” said CBS chairman Leslie Moonves of the massive coverage of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016. “The money’s rolling in.”

With that in mind, perhaps discussions about improving trust in journalism could begin by acknowledging the extent to which the public’s skepticism toward the media is well-founded – or, at the very least, by more explicitly distinguishing between different kinds of news production.

In short, people are skeptical of the news and distrustful of journalists, not because they think journalists want to brainwash them into voting certain ways, but because they think journalists want to make money off their attention above all else.

For journalists to seriously address the root causes of the public’s distrust in their work, they will need to acknowledge the economic nature of that distrust and reckon with their role in its perpetuation. Läs mer…