The ever-expanding media universe offers a wealth of sources of information about the presidential campaign: wire services, the networks, local news, cable, radio, newspapers, newsmagazines, and opinion magazines.  The Internet has come to play an increasingly prominent role.  In addition to strong online presences of many traditional news organizations, the Internet allows any motivated individual to become a publisher.  Information rapidly circulates in the blogosphere and is minutely diced and sliced; readers must take care to ensure its veracity.
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Think about where you get your news from.  There's a lot of it out there.  (See for example: Todd Gitlin. MEDIA UNLIMITED: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives.  Metropolitan Books, March 2002).  As a news consumer you should try to avail yourself of a number of different sources, including from time to time some you might not normally look at.  Read, view or listen with a critical eye and ear and consider how well the story portrays the reality of a situation or event.

Two examples of coverage from the 2004 campaign stand out.  The first event was Howard Dean's speech on January 19, 2004 following his third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and more particularly the "primal scream" that he uttered.  To those in the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines the scream--part of an energetic speech--was not particularly remarkable, but when picked out by a microphone and played endlessly in the succeeding days and weeks it ascended into campaign lore and forever colored Dean's image. 

The second was CBS "60 Minutes" September 8, 2004 report that, "President Bush received preferential treatment to gain entrance to the Texas Air National Guard and that he may not have fulfilled all of the requirements."  Online activists quickly raised questions, in particular challenging the authenticity of memos used in the report.  Two weeks of controversy followed.  On September 20 CBS News anchor Dan Rather apologized for using the documents, stating that he no longer had confidence in them and that it was a "mistake in judgment" to use them.  In this instance new media brought one of the giants of old media to heel.

Among the factors that affect the quality and quantity of news and election coverage a particular outlet presents are the available resources (financial, talent, equipment, and commitment), the needs of advertisers and the audience, established news practices, habits and conventions, the peculiarities of individual media, and technology.  Thus a local newspaper has a set of strengths and weaknesses that differ from those of a major network.  Depending on the ideological biases of the publisher and the editorial staff, information may also be slanted toward or against various viewpoints.  (See Media Research Center and Media Matters for America).

For any given medium, information about the campaign can be packaged in a variety of ways.  For example, on a network there are the flagship evening newscasts, morning shows, magazine programs, Sunday morning newsmaker programs, occasional specials, and so forth.  Similarly, in a newspaper one finds hard news articles, news analysis, long features, lighter, "Style"-type pieces, photographs, columns, editorials, and editorial cartoons.

Just as campaigns vie for support from voters, news organizations seek to gain loyalty of viewers, readers and surfers.  Promos in their own pages or broadcasts, or ads placed in other media highlight programming and personalities and establish brand identity. 

A campaign unfolds along a fixed chronological path, with clear markers along the way, and there are only so many approaches a news organization can take in covering it.  There are, however, huge differences in the quality and consistency of coverage.

Organization and Focus
For many news organizations, the election may not be a major focus until Election Day approaches.  Stories about the campaign appear haphazardly here and there.  A news organization can help its readers or viewers better understand the campaign if it provides some order to its coverage, for example by running its campaign stories in a consistent place or on specific days of the week and by using a recognizable graphic to draw attention to them.  Regular series of articles can also helpful.

Candidate Profiles
At different stages in the campaign, many news organizations will run in-depth profiles of the major candidates.  A first set of candidate portraits typically appears early in the campaign, perhaps a couple of months before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests.  After the primaries are over, heading into the conventions, the soon-to-be nominees are profiled again.  Finally, toward the close of the fall campaign, a news organization may choose to run a final profile. A noteworthy example from television is Frontline's "The Choice."  Writing or producing a candidate profile is a real art.  Consider what anecdote is used to begin the profile, who among the candidate's realm of acquaintances is interviewed, what images are used, and how well the profile captures the essence of the subject. 

It is relatively easy to report on campaign strategies and tactics, daily charges and countercharges and the latest poll results.  More difficult is the task of explaining "the issues" in a fresh and understandable way.  To untangle complex problems such as retirement security or tax policy, to lay out the candidates' proposals for addressing them, and to make it all relevant requires a great deal of research and thought from the reporter.  Even after all that work, readers may, given human nature, skip over the well-written story on trade policy to find out about the most recent candidate controversy.

The media are firmly addicted to polls and devote substantial resources to conducting them.  Political reporters argue that polling data can suggest stories.  For example if poll numbers show a candidate is weak among particular demographic groups, the reporter might do a story about why this is so.  Sometimes however it seems that reporting poll numbers is a substitute for providing explanation of complex issues.  Horserace coverage adds nothing to understanding of the candidates and issues.

Ad Watches
Given the importance of TV advertising in modern-day campaigns, many news organizations now run ad watches.  These analyze the accuracy and fairness of candidates' claims and may provide broader information about where an ad fits in a campaign's strategy.  Ad watches have generally had a positive effect.  Campaigns now release their ads with documented fact sheets.  However, in the case of emotion- tugging "feel good" ads, doing an ad watch may be comparable to trying to dissect a soap bubble.

Media on Media
A number of news organizations have writers or reporters who focus specifically on media, or even on media and politics. This type of reporting can be quite enlightening, reminding the audience that news presents only a version of reality; it is the product of many individuals' efforts and perceptions.  As another example, some newspapers have a weekly "Magazine Reader" type section which draws attention to feature articles; this can be an invaluable service for busy readers. 

In the closing month of the campaign, many newspapers make endorsements.  Newspaper endorsements may cause a significant difference in less-publicized races where voters are not familiar with the candidates or the specifics of a ballot initiative, but at the presidential level they probably do not have much impact.  That is not to say a newspaper endorsement has no effect. When candidates are striving for credibility in the pre-primary period or the early primaries or seeking to persuade swing voters in the fall a newspaper endorsement may count for something.  A newspaper's endorsement is generally decided by the editorial board, although sometimes the publisher may weigh in.  Some newspapers have a policy of not making endorsements, at least at the presidential level.  Examining the reasoning used in various papers' endorsements can offer clear insights into the candidates' strengths and weaknesses. 

Many Other Aspects
There are many other aspects of campaign coverage to consider.  As an exercise, take a specific campaign event, such as a speech or a rally, and compare how a number of different news organizations cover it.

2004 Coverage
Reports and Notes
A progressive view "Top Ten media failings in 2004."  A conservative view "The Ten Worst Media Distortions of Campaign 2004."

Center for Media and Public Affairs' "Election 2004."

Project for Excellence in Journalism reports:
-"The Debate Effect (Oct. 27, 2004).
-"CCJ Member 2004 Campaign Coverage Survey (Oct. 19, 2004).
-"Character and the Campaign" (July 12, 2004).
-"e-Politics 2004: How Online Campaign Coverage Has Changed in Four Years" (February 5, 2004).

"Stories About Campaign Coverage," Neiman Reports, Vol. 58, No. 1 Spring 2004.

Intelliseek's BlogPulseTM Campaign Radar 2004 (Oct. 27, 2004 press release)

Media Research Center "Tell the Truth! 2004"

FEATURE: "On the Cover: W, The Dems & the 2004 Campaign"--A DEMOCRACY IN ACTION Exhibit held at GWU's Gelman Library January 10-23, 2005.
Profile Series on the 2004 Democratic Primary Candidates.
Coverage of Gov. Howard Dean's Formal Announcement, June 23, 2003.
Coverage of Sen. John Edwards Announcement of Exploratory Committee, January 3, 2003.
Coverage of Sen. John Edwards' First Trip to New Hampshire, February 1-3, 2002.
Editorial Cartoons
It's Edwards: Editorial Cartoonists on Sen. John Kerry's Selection of Sen. John Edwards as His Running Mate, July 2004.
The General Arrives: Editorial Cartoonists' Portrayals of Gen. Wesley Clark from mid-Sept. 2003.
Initial Impressions: Editorial Cartoons from Dec. 2002 and Jan. 2003.
He's Out: Editorial Cartoonists React to Former VP Al Gore's December 15, 2002 Announcement.
Odds and Ends
News Corporation's Free Airtime on FOX (Oct. 19, 2004)
Sinclair Broadcast Group to Require Its Stations to Broadcast "Stolen Honor" (Oct. 2004)
The "60 Minutes" Report (Sept. 2004)
ABC News Pulls Reporter off Kucinich Campaign (Kucinich press release Dec. 10, 2003) 
Reality TV Meets the 2004 Presidential Campaign ("The American Candidate") 

2000 Coverage--Reports, Aspects
Patricia Moy, Michael A. Xenos, and Verena K. Hess.  "Priming Effects of Late-Night Comedy."  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, May 2004, New Orleans, LA.
David King and David Morehouse.  "Moving Voters in the 2000 Presidential Campaign: Local Visits, Local Media.  KSG Faculty Research Working Paper RWP04-003.  (01/04) [PDF]

Alliance for Better Campaigns--"Gouging Democracy: How the Television Industry Profiteered on Campaign 2000"

Hess Report on Campaign Coverage in Nightly Network News (The Brookings Institution)

Center for Media and Public Affairs--Election Watch

Alliance for Better Campaigns--"Broadcast Television & Campaign 2000: Millions from Ads, Seconds for Discourse" (6/13/00)

Project for Excellence in Journalism--"Campaign 2000"

PBS's Democracy Project     Releases: 11/29/99, 3/16/00

Best Practices 2000 (Wisconsin Public Television)

Headline, Photo Coverage of the Democratic National Convention
Headline, Photo Coverage of the Republican National Convention
Primary Debate Coverage by Newspapers
Newspaper Endorsements

2004 Coverage
C-SPAN's 2004 Vote
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer's Vote 2004
Washington Post's Elections 2004
BBC's Vote USA 2004
ABC News' The Note
NPR Archives
Transcripts of CNN's Inside Politics
Frontline's "The Choice 2004"
Newseum's Front Pages
Iowa Caucuses
   Des Moines Register's Campaign 2004
   The Gazette's Iowa Caucus
   "Iowa Press"-Iowa Public Television
   Lee Enterprises' IowaPulse
New Hampshire Primary
   Union Leader's NH Primary
   Concord Monitor's Primary Monitor

The TNR Primary
NewsHour's Vote 2004-Primaries

2000 Coverage
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer's Election 2000
Washington Post's OnPolitics Election 2000
BBC News' Vote USA 2000
Transcripts of CNN's Inside Politics
Frontline's "The Choice 2000"
The Gazette (Cedar Rapids)'s Iowa Caucus 2000 Journal
Democracy Network
Web White & Blue

1996 Coverage
Frontline's "The Choice"

Copyright © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.