Expert Commentary

How television covers the presidential nomination process

2011 study from George Mason University on television news coverage of presidential candidates during primary season.

The number of evening network news stories about the presidential nominating contests has generally declined in recent decades, according to a paper by scholars at George Mason University. The 2008 election — which for a variety of reasons generated massive media attention — stands as an exception to this trend. But whether or not 2008 is a sign of renewed interest by the television networks, or just an anomaly, remains to be seen during the 2012 election cycle, the researchers note.

That paper from George Mason, published in the book The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012, ed. William Mayer,  “How Television Covers the Presidential Nomination Process,” examines patterns in both the quantitative and qualitative data relating to the political coverage of the major broadcast news organizations, ABC, NBC and CBS. (The paper here is posted with permission of the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield; this material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.)

The study’s findings include:

  • Though news outlets often vow to focus on more substantive issues and avoid pure coverage of polling numbers and which candidate is leading, the data show that “horse-race coverage has been dominant in the last three primary campaign cycles: 71% of the primary coverage in 2008 focused on the horse race, just slightly below the 78% we recorded in 2000 and 77 in 2004.”
  • In previous decades, such coverage has been more substantive. Indeed, in 1988 nearly half of the coverage was devoted to issues. Moreover, the “1992 and 1996 primaries were also far better than 2000, 2004, or 2008 in this regard.”
  • The greatest amount of pre-primary coverage in 2007 was devoted to the perceived frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, and largely neglected candidates in the perceived lower tier.
  • Over the entire primary season, the tone of coverage for Barack Obama was positive 64% of the time compared to 45% of the time for Hillary Clinton.
  • In terms of the news coverage’s tone during the 2007 pre-primary season, the Democratic candidates fared “far better” than the Republican candidates: the tone of coverage was positive 54% of the time for Democrats and 39% for Republicans. Coverage of John Edwards was positive 71% of the time, and Mike Huckabee led the Republicans in terms of positive coverage.
  • On the whole, U.S. senators receive more positive coverage, likely because they are better known inside the Washington establishment. This is true for both Democrats and Republicans: “If media tone determined nominations, senators would win most of the time.”

The study’s authors note that the large field of Republican candidates in 2012 will have to compete “all the more aggressively for limited mainstream media coverage” and non-frontrunner candidates face the now well-established trend of “media triage to allocate air time.” Indeed, historical data suggest that television news outlets seem “unable to focus on more than two or three candidates at a time.”

Tags: presidency

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