New York Times Coverage of Presidential Campaigns

Article excerpt

This study investigates New York Times coverage of the Democratic and Republican general presidential campaigns from 1952-2000. Content analysis reveals that the most common topic of campaign coverage was horse race. Discussion of the candidates' character was more common than discussion of their policy positions (even though candidates discuss policy more than character in campaign messages). The statements in these stories were more often negative than positive (despite the fact that candidates' messages are more positive than negative). Reporters are the most common sources for the statements in these articles, followed by candidates, supporters, and others.

Introduction

Newspapers are an important source of information about presidential campaigns. Hollihan explained that "for national political news coverage, the most thorough, comprehensive, and substantive information regarding political campaigns, political issues, and public policies is available to readers of comprehensive large city daily papers."1 Of course, availability does not necessarily mean use. Hansen reviewed the literature on newspaper use and issue knowledge in presidential campaigns. He found that only seventeen of thirty-four studies on newspaper use found a significant effect on learning. On the other hand, his analysis of NES data from 1960-2000 indicated that newspaper use was associated with higher levels of knowledge in each of these eleven campaigns.2 Although the literature on voter learning from newspaper coverage of political campaigns is mixed, the evidence suggests at a minimum that newspapers can be a significant source of issue knowledge for voters.

Another indication of the importance of news coverage of campaigns comes from the theory of agenda setting. Cohen explained the basic idea that the press "may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about."3 In other words, the news may not be able to create attitudes (what to think about an issue), but the news can tell people that an issue is something they should be thinking about (what is an important issue). McCombs and Shaw coined the phrase "agenda setting" to refer to this phenomenon.4 Weaver, McCombs, and Shaw's review concluded that "on the whole," research "tends to support a positive correlation-and often a causal relationship-between media agendas and public agendas."5 So, not only can the news inform the public but it has the potential to influence public perceptions of which issues are most important.

Furthermore, those who read newspapers may be a particularly important group to study. NES data from 2000 reveals that those who read newspapers are more likely to vote in presidential elections than those who do not. This means that newspaper users have a disproportionate impact at the polls. The 2000 election makes it plain that the outcome of close elections can be altered by a relatively small group of voters. Nor was 2000 the only close presidential election in recent years:

In 1960, John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by about 100,000 popular votes. This is a fraction of a percentage (0.2%) of the total vote. In 1968, Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey by 500,000 votes (0.7%). In 1976, Jimmy Carter won by less than 2% of the popular vote. Polls in late September of 1976 showed an unusually large number of undecided voters... In 1980, Ronald Reagan beat Carter by less than 10% of the popular vote, yet two weeks before the election, 25% of the voters were still undecided.6

Research on the content of newspaper coverage of presidential campaigns is clearly justified.

Specifically, the question of which topics are addressed in news coverage of political campaigns is an important one. Research has shown that the amount of coverage received by candidates, the tone of the coverage, and the amount of horse race coverage focusing on a candidate can influence voters' perceptions of candidates. …