The Media

Coverage Effects on Campaigns and Governance

When it is spotty, the media’s coverage of campaigns and government can sometimes affect the way government operates and the success of candidates. In 1972, for instance, the McGovern-Fraser reforms created a voter-controlled primary system, so party leaders no longer pick the presidential candidates. Now the media are seen as kingmakers and play a strong role in influencing who will become the Democratic and Republican nominees in presidential elections. They can discuss the candidates’ messages, vet their credentials, carry sound bites of their speeches, and conduct interviews. The candidates with the most media coverage build momentum and do well in the first few primaries and caucuses. This, in turn, leads to more media coverage, more momentum, and eventually a winning candidate. Thus, candidates need the media.

In the 1980s, campaigns learned that tight control on candidate information created more favorable media coverage. In the presidential election of 1984, candidates Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush began using an issue-of-the-day strategy, providing quotes and material on only one topic each day. This strategy limited what journalists could cover because they had only limited quotes and sound bites to use in their reports. In 1992, both Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s campaigns maintained their carefully drawn candidate images by also limiting photographers and television journalists to photo opportunities at rallies and campaign venues. The constant control of the media became known as the “bubble,” and journalists were less effective when they were in the campaign’s bubble. Reporters complained this coverage was campaign advertising rather than journalism, and a new model emerged with the 1996 election.[18]

Campaign coverage now focuses on the spectacle of the season, rather than providing information about the candidates. Colorful personalities, strange comments, lapse of memories, and embarrassing revelations are more likely to get air time than the candidates’ issue positions. Candidate Donald Trump may be the best example of shallower press coverage of a presidential election. Some argue that newspapers and news programs are limiting the space they allot to discussion of the campaigns.[19] Others argue that citizens want to see updates on the race and electoral drama, not boring issue positions or substantive reporting.[20] It may also be that journalists have tired of the information games played by politicians and have taken back control of the news cycles.[21]

All these factors have likely led to the shallow press coverage we see today, sometimes dubbed pack journalism because journalists follow one another rather than digging for their own stories. Television news discusses the strategies and blunders of the election, with colorful examples. Newspapers focus on polls. In an analysis of the 2012 election, Pew Research found that 64 percent of stories and coverage focused on campaign strategy. Only 9 percent covered domestic issue positions; 6 percent covered the candidates’ public records; and, 1 percent covered their foreign policy positions.[22]

For better or worse, coverage of the candidates’ statements get less airtime on radio and television, and sound bites, or clips, of their speeches, have become even shorter. In 1968, the average sound bite from Richard Nixon was 42.3 seconds, while a recent study of television coverage found that sound bites had decreased to only eight seconds in the 2004 election.[23]

The clips chosen to air were attacks on opponents 40 percent of the time. Only 30 percent contained information about the candidate’s issues or events. The study also found the news showed images of the candidates, but for an average of only twenty-five seconds while the newscaster discussed the stories.[24] This study supports the argument that shrinking sound bites are a way for journalists to control the story and add their own analysis rather than just report on it.[25]

Candidates are given a few minutes to try to argue their side of an issue, but some say television focuses on the argument rather than on information. In 2004, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show began attacking the CNN program Crossfire for being theater, saying the hosts engaged in reactionary and partisan arguing rather than true debating.[26] Some of Stewart’s criticisms resonated, even with host Paul Begala, and Crossfire was later pulled from the air.[27]

The media’s discussion of campaigns has also grown negative. Although biased campaign coverage dates back to the period of the partisan press, the increase in the number of cable news stations has made the problem more visible. Stations like FOX News and MSNBC are overt in their use of bias in framing stories. During the 2012 campaign, seventy-one of seventy-four MSNBC stories about Mitt Romney were highly negative, while FOX News’ coverage of Obama had forty-six out of fifty-two stories with negative information. The major networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—were somewhat more balanced, yet the overall coverage of both candidates tended to be negative.[28]

A bar graph titled Bias in Cable News Coverage of Presidential Candidates, 2012.
Figure 5. Media coverage of campaigns is increasingly negative, with cable news stations demonstrating more bias in their framing of stories during the 2012 campaign.

 

Due in part to the lack of substantive media coverage, campaigns increasingly use social media to relay their message. Candidates can create their own sites and pages and try to spread news through supporters to the undecided. In 2012, both Romney and Obama maintained Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts to provide information to voters. Yet, on social media, candidates still need to combat negativity, from both the opposition and supporters. Stories about Romney that appeared in the mainstream media were negative 38 percent of the time, while his coverage in Facebook news was negative 62 percent of the time and 58 percent of the time on Twitter.[29]

Once candidates are in office, the chore of governing begins, with the added weight of media attention. Historically, if presidents were unhappy with their press coverage, they used personal and professional means to change its tone. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, was able to keep journalists from printing stories through gentleman’s agreements, loyalty, and the provision of additional information, sometimes off the record. The journalists then wrote positive stories, hoping to keep the president as a source. John F. Kennedy hosted press conferences twice a month and opened the floor for questions from journalists, in an effort to keep press coverage positive.[30]

When presidents and other members of the White House are not forthcoming with information, journalists must press for answers. Dan Rather, a journalist for CBS, regularly sparred with presidents in an effort to get information. When Rather interviewed Richard Nixon about Vietnam and Watergate, Nixon was hostile and uncomfortable.[31]

In a 1988 interview with then-vice president George H. W. Bush, Bush accused Rather of being argumentative about the possible cover-up of a secret arms sale with Iran:

Rather: I don’t want to be argumentative, Mr. Vice President.

Bush: You do, Dan.

Rather: No—no, sir, I don’t.

Bush: This is not a great night, because I want to talk about why I want to be president, why those 41 percent of the people are supporting me. And I don’t think it’s fair to judge my whole career by a rehash of Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?[32]

Cabinet secretaries and other appointees also talk with the press, sometimes making for conflicting messages. The creation of the position of press secretary and the White House Office of Communications both stemmed from the need to send a cohesive message from the executive branch. Currently, the White House controls the information coming from the executive branch through the Office of Communications and decides who will meet with the press and what information will be given.

But stories about the president often examine personality, or the president’s ability to lead the country, deal with Congress, or respond to national and international events. They are less likely to cover the president’s policies or agendas without a lot of effort on the president’s behalf.[33]

When Obama first entered office in 2009, journalists focused on his battles with Congress, critiquing his leadership style and inability to work with Representative Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House. To gain attention for his policies, specifically the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Obama began traveling the United States to draw the media away from Congress and encourage discussion of his economic stimulus package. Once the ARRA had been passed, Obama began traveling again, speaking locally about why the country needed the Affordable Care Act and guiding media coverage to promote support for the act.[34]

Congressional representatives have a harder time attracting media attention for their policies. House and Senate members who use the media well, either to help their party or to show expertise in an area, may increase their power within Congress, which helps them bargain for fellow legislators’ votes. Senators and high-ranking House members may also be invited to appear on cable news programs as guests, where they may gain some media support for their policies. Yet, overall, because there are so many members of Congress, and therefore so many agendas, it is harder for individual representatives to draw media coverage.[35]

It is less clear, however, whether media coverage of an issue leads Congress to make policy, or whether congressional policymaking leads the media to cover policy. In the 1970s, Congress investigated ways to stem the number of drug-induced deaths and crimes. As congressional meetings dramatically increased, the press was slow to cover the topic. The number of hearings was at its highest from 1970 to 1982, yet media coverage did not rise to the same level until 1984.[36] Subsequent hearings and coverage led to national policies like DARE and First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.

Image A is of Nancy Reagan standing behind a podium. A sign on the podium reads
Figure 6. First Lady Nancy Reagan speaks at a “Just Say No” rally in Los Angeles on May 13, 1987 (a). The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) is an anti-drug, anti-gang program founded in 1983 by a joint initiative of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

 

Later studies of the media’s effect on both the president and Congress report that the media has a stronger agenda-setting effect on the president than on Congress. What the media choose to cover affects what the president thinks is important to voters, and these issues were often of national importance. The media’s effect on Congress was limited, however, and mostly extended to local issues like education or child and elder abuse.[37] If the media are discussing a topic, chances are a member of Congress has already submitted a relevant bill, and it is waiting in committee.