Looking Behind the Scenes of Political Coverage: A Study Compares National Presidential Press Coverage with Local Reporting on Congressional Races and Emerges with Some Unexpected Findings

Nieman Reports, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Looking Behind the Scenes of Political Coverage: A Study Compares National Presidential Press Coverage with Local Reporting on Congressional Races and Emerges with Some Unexpected Findings


Do national reporters covering the presidential campaign and local reporters assigned to congressional races approach their work with the same journalistic values and assumptions? Are their reporting techniques similar? Which approach serves their readers better? Three members of the department of communication at Stanford University attempted to learn answers to these questions. Shanto Iyengar, the Chandler professor in communication, teaches courses on mass media and political campaigns. William F. Woo, former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, teaches in the graduate journalism program. Jennifer McGrady is a doctoral student and research assistant in the department's political communication laboratory and at the Center for Deliberative Democracy. The following article, composed by the three of them, explains what they learned in surveying newspaper reporters and editors about their political coverage.

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By the middle of January, the 2004 campaign horserace was in full swing. In just a few days, the Iowa caucuses would select the nation's first presidential delegates. In less than two weeks, New Hampshire would hold the first presidential primary. On February 3rd, seven more states would hold their primaries. Never had so many votes been cast so early, and never had they been so important in selecting a party's presidential candidate.

While poll results are the most obvious manifestations of horserace coverage, the term also can include stories about the candidates' strategies and fundraising, predictions of who will and will not turn out to vote, and other "nonsubstantive" topics that do not bring to citizens the information they need to make informed voting decisions. On the other hand, stories linking vital policy issues to candidates' positions, competence and experience, as well as articles taking readers beyond the daily polling or the insider's analysis of the campaign, provide the kind of substance voters need. [See pages 86-87 for comparative examples of coverage.]

Horserace journalism has long been criticized--by those who practice it and by academic observers and even news consumers--but there is no denying its appeal on a number of levels. Such reporting produces fresh stories whenever a new poll is released, and it is cheap and easy to do. The "scientific method" of political polling also makes such coverage relatively immune to criticisms of bias. Moreover, by conducting polls, news companies offer powerful incentives for this horserace approach. During the 2004 political campaigns, CNN collaborated with Time to conduct polls; NBC News linked up with The Wall Street Journal; The New York Times with CBS News, and The Washington Post with ABC News. Journalists might grumble about the fixation on polls, but results from them are showcased by the nation's most prestigious news outlets.

As the caucus and primary voting began, the polls were in alignment. The Democratic frontrunner was former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. CNN-Time and CBS-The New York Times placed Senator John Kerry, who would emerge as the candidate, fourth.

Examining the Coverage

We decided to take a close look at the techniques of election reporting as they would play out during the rest of the campaign. We brought to this task our varied perspectives of a political scientist, newspaper editor, and campaign researcher. We believed that in comparing techniques, assumptions and approaches of presidential campaign journalists with those of local reporters assigned to congressional races we might unearth some important differences. Among the questions we wanted to consider were the following:

* Was the horserace as compelling a news story in congressional campaign coverage as it seemed to be in a presidential race?

* Were the conventions of presidential reporting migrating down to the local level and affecting that coverage? And if so, how?

* Was the trend toward more analytical and interpretive political coverage taking hold in coverage of more local races? …

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