Michael Gurevich and J.G. Blumler describe eight responsibilities of the media in a democratic society insofar as political coverage is concerned. Among them are such noble and laudatory tasks as surveillance of contemporary events, identification and elaboration of key issues, providing forums for advocacy, and so forth. Also included is the responsibility to provide incentives and information permitting citizens to become active participants in the political process, if only to make intelligent decisions in the voting booth.(1) In any presidential campaign, allegations are certain to surface concerning the inadequacy of media coverage, especially the impression that reportage tends to focus on the horse race aspects of candidates' campaigns rather than on the substantive issues and the distinctions among those seeking their parties' nominations.
Some have argued that the increasing prominence of electronic media, driven more by profit and entertainment value than by social responsibility, has had a detrimental effect on all media political coverage.(2) At the same time, presidential candidates since World War II have increasingly recognized the value of demonstrating their popular appeal if they are to be successful in their quest for the White House. That has meant a diminishing role for the major parties and ascending role for state primaries.(3)
It would be fair to consider 1952 a milepost year in the progressive changes ongoing. While in 1948 only 172,000 U.S. households owned a television set, by this presidential year 108 commercial television stations were broadcasting to more than 15,000,000 households - more than one-third the total.(4) In January 1952 NBC launched the Today Show, and July saw the first national telecast of the entire Democratic and Republican national conventions, with an estimated 50 million viewers.(5) More to the point, it marked the first year of what has become traditionally the nation's leadoff primary - that of New Hampshire. And for each quadrennial election since 1952, New Hampshire has taken tremendous pride in conducting the notion's first primary. It was a pivotal year in a period when the presidential nomination process was moving from smoke-filled rooms behind locked doors into a genuine, voter-driven process. Now every four years this state, with a population of just over a million, becomes the fulcrum of American political activity and the focus of media coverage of the presidential nomination process.
By state law, New Hampshire holds its primary election on the first Tuesday in March or at least one week prior to any other state conducting a similar election, whichever is sooner. Candidates, parties and pundits recognize the impact of the New Hampshire primary and devote extraordinary time, talent and treasure to achieving at least a respectable showing. Key, one can assume, is candidates' capturing voters' support through effective, positive and extensive media coverage, both locally to gain support of New Hampshire voters, and nationally to position themselves for subsequent primaries and establish themselves as electable in November.
But what is the nature of that coverage? Is it substantive, or is it superficial? Does it focus on the horse race aspect, addressing only popularity polls, campaign tactics, the importance of winning? Does it educate the voter or help the voter make a rational decision by addressing issues, positions, experience, character? Past studies of political coverage would strongly suggest an emphasis on the superficial.
This longitudinal study examines the thematic content of selected print coverage of the New Hampshire primary since its inception in 1952 through the 1996 campaign. It asks specifically whether newspaper coverage of election themes has evolved under the gradual shift away from nomination by party power brokers to election through the primary nomination process, and whether allegations of superficial coverage are a recent or a well-established phenomenon. …