Walter Robinson is a dis­tin­guished pro­fessor of jour­nalism. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

With news cov­erage of the Repub­lican pres­i­den­tial pri­maries in full swing, we asked Walter Robinson — Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Jour­nalism at North­eastern and a former reporter and editor for The Boston Globe — to assess the cur­rent state of polit­ical jour­nalism and how fac­tors like new tech­nolo­gies and smaller news­rooms are affecting cam­paign cov­erage. Robinson cov­ered pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns for the Globe in 1984, 1988, 1992 and 2000.

Cam­paign sto­ries tend to focus on polls, often feeling like cov­erage of a horse race. Why does polit­ical reporting so often take this form?

I think polls are a crutch for reporters who don’t want to talk to real voters and for edi­tors and reporters who cannot stand to be in a news envi­ron­ment in which they do not know what the out­come will be. When you think about the jour­nalism we do most of the time, we’re reporting on things that have hap­pened. In elec­tions, when we’re reporting on things that are going to happen, we get way off the mark and try to antic­i­pate out­comes. Pre­dicting the finan­cial mar­kets may be easier. These polls create a fic­tion that we report promi­nently — often on Page One. To give one example: you see polls of the entire national elec­torate taken months before most people even get to vote, at a time when the majority of voters are still unde­cided. You can’t pre­dict with any reli­a­bility what voters will do very far in advance because they simply don’t decide that far in advance. In the end, the sub­stance gets lost in the horserace, this con­tinual chase of the numbers.

Are any net­works or pub­li­ca­tions cov­ering pol­i­tics better than most this year?

At the moment, because all the char­ac­ters onstage are con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­cans, the best polit­ical reporting and analysis in the cable TV world is Fox News. I think they have a better handle on the con­ser­v­a­tive pri­mary race because they have better access to can­di­dates, they have better ana­lysts of both par­ties and they’ve treated the can­di­dates pretty even­hand­edly so far. Fox has been a pleasant sur­prise, but once the pri­maries are over I think the stan­dard crit­i­cism of Fox — that they lean too far to the right — will likely come back.

What fac­tors, like the down­sizing of news­rooms and the emer­gence of new tech­nolo­gies like Twitter, are influ­encing cam­paign cov­erage ahead of the 2012 pres­i­den­tial election?

As someone who now does tweet, though more for the fun of it, I’d have to say that I think Twitter is a good indi­cator of the extent to which the Amer­ican elec­torate and the press all have a col­lec­tive case of atten­tion deficit dis­order. We already have so much infor­ma­tion coming at us so when you add in tweets — which are so often sub­stance free — it fur­ther harms the electorate.

Shrinking news­rooms have also had a real impact. It used to be, at this time of the year, The Boston Globe — as an example of one paper that has long taken pol­i­tics seri­ously — would have 10 or more reporters in New Hamp­shire ahead of the pri­mary, a number that would not include colum­nists. Because large news orga­ni­za­tions have lost so many staff mem­bers, you instead start to have these much smaller news orga­ni­za­tions with younger, less-​​experienced reporters cov­ering pol­i­tics. One problem that cre­ates is that many of the reporters show up in Iowa to cover someone like Rick San­torum with no idea about what he was like as a con­gressman or a sen­ator. So when a good reporter from some place like The New York Times has a story about his back­ground and his demeanor, it’s news for a lot of people — and that, unfor­tu­nately, includes a lot of the reporters.