The con­tentious debate over the debt ceiling became one of this summer’s hottest news sto­ries. We asked Dan Kennedy, assis­tant pro­fessor of jour­nalism at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, to assess the overall cov­erage as well as the chal­lenges jour­nal­ists face when reporting any polit­i­cally charged story.

Many Amer­i­cans had never heard of the debt ceiling prior to this debate. Did main­stream media out­lets do enough to explain it to the public?

That’s a hard ques­tion to answer, because the media are not mono­lithic. Tens of mil­lions of people rely on quality news out­lets like the New York Times and National Public Radio. I thought they did a good job of explaining that the debt-​​ceiling vote was a rou­tine mea­sure passed dozens of times pre­vi­ously, and that the Repub­li­cans were holding it up in order to force mas­sive spending cuts. On the other hand, people who relied on tele­vi­sion, and espe­cially on cable news, were told that there was a polit­ical battle going on with very little in the way of con­text or background.

When reporting on national debates around such issues as the debt ceiling, how do jour­nal­ists bal­ance cov­ering what may be a bitter polit­ical dis­course and explaining the issues at hand? And how did this bal­ancing act play out here?

There is a major dif­fer­ence between how top-​​flight news orga­ni­za­tions han­dled the story com­pared to cable news. But, in gen­eral, the media’s instinct is to cover such issues as though they were sporting events—Democrats versus Repub­li­cans, who’s up and who’s down, win­ners and losers—while paying little or no atten­tion to the under­lying issues.

One problem is the false notion of objectivity—the idea that jour­nal­ists should present the views of both “sides” as though they are equally worthy of con­sid­er­a­tion. Objec­tivity was never intended to sub­sti­tute for the truth.

In this case, it was objec­tively true that Pres­i­dent Obama and con­gres­sional Democ­rats were willing to give the Repub­li­cans almost every­thing they wanted in order to avoid default. Yet the both-​​sides par­a­digm is so ingrained that CNN and the Asso­ci­ated Press, among others, con­tinued to run sto­ries to the effect that nei­ther side would compromise.

In the plan passed by Con­gress, the over­whelming majority of the cuts do not kick in until 2013. Has this rather impor­tant fact been prop­erly reported on? In gen­eral, what are your thoughts on how main­stream media cover gov­ern­ment budget stories?

That fact has been well cov­ered by the news orga­ni­za­tions that many people rely on. In addi­tion, in sev­eral of his state­ments Pres­i­dent Obama has addressed the notion that most of the cuts will be delayed until after the economy has started to recover. Overall, though, Washington-​​based jour­nal­ists like to cover pol­i­tics, and so every story they encounter ends up being seen through that lens. We have heard far more about how the debt-​​ceiling battle may affect Obama’s re-​​election chances than about what it might actu­ally mean for the economy.