Setting the News Story Agenda: Candidates and Commentators in News Coverage of a Governor's Race

Article excerpt

This study assessed the kinds of sources setting the story "agenda" in election news covering the 1998 governor's race in the nine largest Michigan dailies. The assertions of candidates or their partisan supporters were more likely than those of experts or other sources to dominate story leads and paragraphs. Sources included for their expertise on the "horse race" and issue aspects of the campaign were cited in only a third of the election stories, and their comments were usually placed far down in the stories. Statehouse bureau reporters were more likely than their newsroom-based and wire-service colleagues to write stories including experts. A substantial number of stories also contained unattributed "reporter leads." Most of these leads were references to events or developments that could be verified by any reader. Other reporter leads contained interpretations that were substantiated in the stories. But about 5 percent of the stories were introduced by reporter leads that contained interpretations or conclusions that were not or could not be substantiated in stories. Statehouse bureau reporters were also more likely than wire service or newsroom reporters to write interpretative leads.

Introduction

Agenda-setting research has established that news media attention to issues subsequently influences the public's assessment of the importance of those issues. The media's agenda-setting power during an election means that candidates may have a harder or easier time mobilizing constituencies around their issues. Media emphasis on some issues may also affect candidate approval, depending on whether their stances on those issues are popular or unpopular.

Agenda-setting research must therefore also explore who sets the media's agenda. This study attempts to contribute to this research by assessing the kinds of sources given prominence in election news stories. Sources routinely included in such stories are candidates and their supporters, commentators on the election "horse race," institutional and group sources included for their expertise or perspectives on issues, and ordinary citizens.

The normative assumption is that voters are exposed to candidate views in news stories. But do the observers, commentators, and interpreters of their campaigns drown out the candidates themselves? Certainly election reporting appropriately contains interpretation and information from other sources. Experts who comment on the "horse race" aspects of campaigns are now a staple in much coverage. Further, reporters may cite issue experts for analysis and interpretation of the possible effects of the policies the candidates advocate. How often do such experts get more prominent or extensive coverage than partisans?

Finally, the reporters themselves can be story agenda setters. They may frame stories by what they include or omit. Indeed, the leads they construct provide the context for all that follows, whatever other sources are subsequently cited. Journalistic norms call for reporters to explicitly attribute information and to follow standards for impartiality. But how often do reporters lead stories with conclusions or interpretations that are more associated with analysis or opinion pieces than straight reporting?

Theoretical Framework

Significance of Problem. Election reporting can potentially influence the decisions of large numbers of voters. First, research has demonstrated the agenda-setting power of the mass media.' In essence, topics given relatively more attention in the media over time come to be considered more important by the public. Candidates strive to get their "agenda" before the public, emphasizing issues they deem more likely to activate positive voter response. Therefore, media coverage can indirectly influence electoral outcomes-not just the electoral agenda-if unequal attention is given to the policy positions emphasized by partisans. Candidates may have greater or lesser success in getting stories to emphasize the issues they want. …