Media: Covering the Campaign Header

The ever-expanding media universe offers a wealth of different sources of information about the presidential campaign: wire services, the networks, local news, cable, radio, newspapers, newsmagazines, opinion magazines, and the Internet, among others. For any given medium, information about the campaign can be packaged in a variety of ways. For example, on a network there are the flagship evening newscasts, morning shows, magazine programs, Sunday morning newsmaker programs, occasional specials, and so forth. Similarly, in a newspaper one finds hard news articles, news analysis, long features, lighter, "Style"-type pieces, photographs, columns, editorials, and editorial cartoons.

Just as campaigns vie for support from voters, news organizations seek to gain loyalty of viewers, readers and surfers. Promos in their own pages or broadcasts, or ads placed in other media highlight programming and personalities and establish brand identity. 

A campaign unfolds along a fixed chronological path, with clear markers along the way, and there are only so many approaches a news organization can take in covering it. There are, however, huge differences in the quality and consistency of coverage.

Among the factors that affect the quality and quantity of news and election coverage a particular outlet presents are the available resources (financial, talent, equipment, and commitment), the needs of advertisers and the audience, established news practices, habits and conventions, the peculiarities of individual media, and technology. Thus a local newspaper has a set of strengths and weaknesses that differ from those of a major network. Depending on the ideological biases of the publisher and the editorial staff, information may also be slanted toward or against various viewpoints. 

As a news consumer you should avail yourself of a number of different sources, including some you might not normally look at.  Think critically about what you are reading or viewing and how well it portrays the reality of a situation or event.

Organization and Focus
For many news organizations, the election may not be a major focus until Election Day approaches.  Stories about the campaign appear haphazardly here and there.  A news organization can help its readers or viewers better understand the campaign if it provides some order to its coverage, for example by running its campaign stories in a consistent place or on specific days of the week and by using a recognizable graphic to draw attention to them.  Regular series of articles can also helpful.

Candidate Profiles
At different stages in the campaign, many news organizations will run in-depth profiles of the major candidates.  A first set of candidate portraits typically appears early in the campaign, perhaps a couple of months before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. After the primaries are over, heading into the conventions, the soon-to-be nominees are profiled again.  Finally, toward the close of the fall campaign, a news organization may choose to run a final profile. A noteworthy example from television is Frontline's "The Choice."  Writing or producing a candidate profile is a real art.  Consider what anecdote is used to begin the profile, who among the candidate's realm of acquaintances is interviewed, what images are used, and how well the profile captures the essence of the subject. 

It is relatively easy to report on campaign strategies and tactics, daily charges and countercharges and the latest poll results.  More difficult is the task of explaining "the issues" in a fresh and understandable way.  To untangle complex problems such as retirement security or tax policy, to lay out the candidates' proposals for addressing them, and to make it all relevant requires a great deal of research and thought from the reporter.  Even after all that work, readers may, given human nature, skip over the well-written story on trade policy to find out about the most recent candidate controversy.

The media are firmly addicted to polls and devote substantial resources to conducting them.  Political reporters argue that polling data can suggest stories.  For example if poll numbers show a candidate is weak among particular demographic groups, the reporter might do a story about why this is so.  Sometimes however it seems that reporting poll numbers is a substitute for providing explanation of complex issues.  Horserace coverage adds nothing to understanding of the candidates and issues.

Ad Watches
Given the importance of TV advertising in modern-day campaigns, many news organizations now run ad watches.  These analyze the accuracy and fairness of candidates' claims and may provide broader information about where an ad fits in a campaign's strategy.  Ad watches have generally had a positive effect.  Campaigns now release their ads with documented fact sheets.  However, in the case of emotion- tugging "feel good" ads, doing an ad watch may be comparable to trying to dissect a soap bubble.

Media on Media
A number of news organizations have writers or reporters who focus specifically on media, or even on media and politics. This type of reporting can be quite enlightening, reminding the audience that news presents only a version of reality; it is the product of many individuals' efforts and perceptions.  As another example, some newspapers have a weekly "Magazine Reader" type section which draws attention to feature articles; this can be an invaluable service for busy readers. 

In the closing month of the campaign, many newspapers make endorsements.  Newspaper endorsements may cause a significant difference in less-publicized races where voters are not familiar with the candidates or the specifics of a ballot initiative, but at the presidential level they probably do not have much impact.  That is not to say a newspaper endorsement has no effect. When candidates are striving for credibility in the pre-primary period or the early primaries or seeking to persuade swing voters in the fall a newspaper endorsement may count for something.  A newspaper's endorsement is generally decided by the editorial board, although sometimes the publisher may weigh in. Some newspapers have a policy of not making endorsements, at least at the presidential level. Examining the reasoning used in various papers' endorsements can offer clear insights into the candidates' strengths and weaknesses. 

Many Other Aspects
There are many other aspects of campaign coverage to consider.  As an exercise, take a specific campaign event, such as a speech or a rally, and compare how a number of different news organizations cover it.

2000 Coverage--Sites and Portals
C-SPAN's Campaign 2000
CNN.com Election 2000
Washington Post's On Politics--Post Series
NPR Online Election 2000
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer's Election 2000
Christian Science Monitor's White House 2000
Yahoo's Presidential Elections 2000, Full Coverage
BBC News' Vote USA 2000
L.A. Times' Campaign 2000
Associated Press's Election 2000
MTV's Choose or Lose
Daryl Cagle's Professional Cartoonist Index-"Campaign 2000"
Transcripts of CNN's Inside Politics
Frontline's "The Choice 2000"

Democracy Network
Web White & Blue

2000 Coverage--Reports, Aspects
Alliance for Better Campaign's "greedytv.org"
Hess Report on Campaign Coverage in Nightly Network News (The Brookings Institution)
Center for Media and Public Affairs--Election Watch
Alliance for Better Campaigns--"Broadcast Television & Campaign 2000: Millions from Ads, Seconds for Discourse" (6/13/00)
Committee of Concerned Journalists--"ePolitics: A Study of the 2000 Presidential Campaign on the Internet" (4/10/00)
Project for Excellence in Journalism--"Election Coverage 2000"
PBS's Democracy Project     Releases: 11/29/99, 3/16/00
Best Practices 2000 (Wisconsin Public Television)
Headline, Photo Coverage of the Democratic National Convention
Headline, Photo Coverage of the Republican National Convention
Primary Debate Coverage by Newspapers
Newspaper Endorsements
Alexandra Pelosi, co-produced and edited by Aaron Lubarsky.  March 2002.  "JOURNEYS WITH
 GEORGE: A home movie by Alexandra Pelosi." >> 
Eric Boehlert.  "The Press vs. Al Gore."  Rolling Stone, Dec. 6-13, 2001.

New Hampshire
Concord Monitor's 2000 Presidential Primary
nh.com's Primary Newstand
New Hampshire Public Radio's New Hampshire Presidential Primary
Union Leader's New Hampshire Primary.com
WMUR-TV 9's Campaign 2000

Des Moines Register's Iowa Caucuses
The Gazette (Cedar Rapids)'s Iowa Caucus 2000 Journal
Lee Enterprises' Iowa Pulse

1996 Coverage
"Lethargy '96: How The Media Covered a Listless Campaign" (The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center)
The Freedom Forum's Campaign 96 Reports
Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania's "Media and the Dialogue of Democracy"
Frontline's "The Choice"

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.