Expert Commentary

Press secretaries, journalists and editors: Shaping local Congressional news coverage

2012 study in Political Communication on political public relations effects, journalists' response, and the press coverage that results.

As those in politics and the media know, the relationship between press secretaries and reporters is often a fraught one. During election season, there can be constant jockeying, back-and-forth streams of emails, phone calls and off-hour messages, with one side trying to push a “message” or deflect criticism, the other looking to cover new campaign wrinkles, secure an interview or get to the bottom of some claim. Though these two key sets of actors significantly shape what the public hears and learns, their interactions — and the outcomes at the local level — are seldom scrutinized in political science research.

A 2012 study published in Political Communication, “Press Secretaries, Journalists and Editors: Shaping Local Congressional News Coverage,” looks to establish a more precise understanding of the interactions between press strategists and the media, and to examine the fairness of coverage produced. The researcher, from Georgia State University, analyzed the content of more than 1,100 articles relating to 100 representatives just prior to the 2006 election and incorporated qualitative data from interviews with 51 press secretaries and 22 journalists.

The study’s findings include:

  • The data “indicate that members of Congress and their press secretaries may exert some limited level of control over the frequency of their media coverage but are less influential when it comes to the tenor of such coverage.”
  • “Generally, those press secretaries who believed their relationship with reporters to be important received more frequent coverage.… When asked why they believe some news outlets are more favorable than others to the representatives they serve, press secretaries frequently mentioned the relationship between the press and their offices.”
  • The interviews with reporters “strongly suggest that representatives’ willingness to communicate with the media and remain accessible to them, particularly for personal interviews, influenced the coverage members received.” Moreover, “the tone of members’ coverage is substantively more positive when journalists report having a ‘very good’ relationship with the representative and his or her office than coverage of other representatives.”
  • With respect to the editorial endorsements of news organizations, the journalists “unequivocally agreed that there was no relationship between the editorial boards’ decisions and their reporting,” while many press secretaries thought such endorsements drive more coverage of representatives, or even influence the tone and content of reported articles.
  • The quantitative study data appear to show that editorial endorsements may have some effect on reportorial coverage by the same outlet. Though the results are “inconsistent,” the findings may “lend some support to many of the press secretaries’ comments in the in-depth interviews and challenge the notion that a strict wall of separation exists between the news and editorial offices.”
  • The findings also reveal that “campaign competitiveness significantly impacts coverage, positively increasing the frequency of members’ coverage but also negatively impacting the tone of such coverage.”

The researcher concludes that the data show a “complex picture” of local political news coverage and dynamic interplay between politicians and the press: “On the one hand, representatives are able to exert some influence over the coverage they receive. Press secretaries strive to consistently publicize the activities of their representatives by sending out press releases and, perhaps more informally, remaining accessible to journalists and maintaining positive relationships with the press. On the other hand, both editors and reporters appear to have an independent influence over the tone and frequency of coverage, after controlling for rival explanations. Newspaper coverage is not merely a reflection of elected officials’ behaviors, political campaigns, and structural constraints. It is also influenced independently by editors’ and reporters’ choices and attitudes.”

Tags: elections, news, campaigns and media