The World: Insider's View - US

The narrowing gap between the media and the audience is even more evident as the race for the White House hits the home straight, Steve Harty says.

With two weeks to go, the US voter is besieged by opinion, contradictory information and polls claiming to substantiate nearly every electoral eventuality and policy. But this year's outcome will be shaped by new and barely harnessed forces.

The electoral process has been fundamentally altered by changes in media, technology and distribution. Consequently, the forums in which politics are discussed, debated and spun have reproduced like rabbits. Everyone's entitled to an opinion and now everyone can publish and distribute it.

While the proliferation of political content might seem consistent with the democratic ideal of an informed electorate, it also produces complications. Unlike the UK, media in the US traditionally aspired to neutrality and objectivity. US voters are unaccustomed to deconstructing political coverage from an ideological perspective.

These changes, and the increase in sources of information and opinion about the political scene, have also intensified competition for voter attention. Advertising-driven media chase ratings and impressions. This has driven the news media toward sensationalism. As a result, complex issues are reduced to soundbites. News is usually little more than the attack-of-the-day. And as media outlets proliferate, "expert analysis" is often just thinly disguised partisan polemic.

The result? A perverse, unwritten contract between the electorate and the media in which voters consume politics as entertainment, trading superficial coverage of the issues for water cooler value.

Americans, however, increasingly appreciate the stakes in this particular election. Despite complicity in the evolution of politics as entertainment, they have begun to also eagerly seek guidance on the issues. And none more so than the potentially king-making "undecided" segment. Most Americans know the importance of voting for policies rather than personalities. Yet, finding unbiased information about positions is challenging.

A year ago, having tracked these trends, Bartle Bogle Hegarty New York was selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates to help it move the debate concept online. We developed, in close partnership with MySpace, MyDebates.com. On 7 October, Tom Brokaw posed to candidates the first web-sourced questions ever in this forum. More than 25,000 questions were submitted via MyDebates.com.

Narrowing the media gap between voters and candidates will undoubtedly produce a more informed vote this November. If the gap can be closed in the most media-saturated market in the world, it's likely that voters in the UK and other developed countries will soon welcome comparable experiments.

- Steve Harty is the chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty New York.

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