Comparing News and Editorial Coverage of the 1996 Presidential Nominating Campaign

By Steger, Wayne P. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Comparing News and Editorial Coverage of the 1996 Presidential Nominating Campaign


Steger, Wayne P., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Most studies on media coverage of presidential campaigns build on Thomas Patterson's argument that the "game" schema guides the selection and interpretation of campaign events.(1) Journalists view candidates as players in a game who are principally concerned with winning. The focus is on who is ahead, who is behind, and how the game is being played. Candidates' actions and statements, including their policy positions, are seen as calculated behaviors intended to improve their chances of winning. These observations, however, are based on analyses of news coverage. Scholars have neglected commentary coverage of politics, even though commentaries are a significant part of print media coverage. There are good reasons to expect differences between news and commentary coverage of campaigns. Keeping opinions out of the news has been a central component of objective journalism since the early twentieth century.(2) Unconstrained by norms of objectivity, editorial staff and columnists are free to choose sides, present one-sided arguments, and let ideological considerations guide their writing. On the other hand, the differences between news and commentary coverage of politics may be fading since news coverage has become more interpretive and critical of the candidates and their actions.(3) Just how different are news and commentary coverage of presidential campaigns? Comparing the quality and quantity of candidate coverage in news and commentary items should give us a fuller picture of the information available to voters.

The media play a powerful role as intermediaries between political leaders and the public.(4) The media's role is especially important in the nominating campaign. Because most people are poorly informed about the candidates, what the media say and write about candidates has considerable potential to influence voters' judgments about the candidates.(5) By portraying candidates more or less favorably and as more or less likely to win the nomination, the media influence at least some primary voters' decisions to support certain candidates rather than others by altering their strategic calculations and attitudes toward the candidates.(6) How the media act as intermediaries and how they affect presidential nominations are questions worth studying.

Patterns of Campaign Coverage

The limits of space and time make bias inevitable in media coverage. The form of the media's bias can be found in the themes or frames used by journalists to select and interpret events. The predominant frame in campaign coverage is the game schema where journalists view politics as a strategic game in which politicians compete for strategic advantage.(7) Viewing the campaign as a game, journalists pay more attention to the "horse race" and to campaign strategy than to substantive policy issues or candidate qualifications.(8) The amount of coverage given to candidates reflects journalists' expectations of candidates' chances of winning the race.(9) The tone of candidate coverage also follows a candidate's fortunes in and at the polls, although with greater variation as a result of attention given to scandals, blunders, and other conflicts.(10)

Four major story lines pervade the game schema. The first is the front-runner story line. Front-runners receive the most coverage, but the coverage tends to be critical as reporters focus on the candidates' efforts to stay on top.(11) The second story line is that of the likely losers--candidates judged by the media to be unlikely to win the nomination.(12) Unless or until they exceed expectations in or at the polls, likely losers receive little attention from the media.(13) Likely loser coverage tends to be critical as reporters focus on the candidates' personal or programmatic flaws and problems with the candidates' strategies.(14) Journalists treat candidates who fall in between the extremes as "plausibles" who might break through to win the nomination.(15) Coverage of the candidates shifts with perceived changes in their chances of winning. …

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