An Expanding, Evolving Media Universe

The ever-expanding, ever-evolving media universe offers a wealth of sources of information about the upcoming presidential campaign.  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. 

Be a Discerning News Consumer

Think about where you get your news and information from.  There's a lot of it out there.  One can turn to the wire services, the networks, cable TV, local TV, radio ranging from NPR to conservative talk radio, newspapers, news magazines, opinion magazines, Internet-only news organizations, social media, and individual or group blogs.  Further, the editorial side of a particular news organization may encompass a wide range of talent, including general assignment reporters, beat reporters, editors, producers, photographers, videographers, columnists, feature writers, and maybe even an editorial cartoonist.  The media are diverse—very diverse.  Conservative talk radio presents a very different picture of the world than do mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times or the Washington Post than does Joe or Jill's blog.

Among the factors that affect the quality and quantity of news and election coverage a news 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. 

Evolving Media Universe

In the old days, people typically turned to television, radio, a newspaper or a magazine for news about the campaign.  On a television network, for example, information is packaged in a variety of ways; 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.  

Now, more and more people acquire their information from the screen of a smartphone or other device, and major news organizations must present information across different platforms and in different forms.  They develop content for Facebook, Twitter and other social media, and they produce versions for mobile devices ranging from smartphones to iPads and other tablets.  A Pew Internet & American Life Project report (>) from Nov. 3, 2014 found that 28% of registered voters "use their cell phones to track political news or campaign coverage" compared to 13% in 2010.  For voters age 30-49, 40% use their cell phones in this way.

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter came of age as a source of political information during the 2012 campaign.  A Pew Internet & American Life Project report (>) from October 2012 found that, "Some 60% of American adults use either social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter...[and] 39% of all American adults—have done at least one of eight civic or political activities with social media."  As reported by Pew in 2015, Millennials get political news from social media, particularly Facebook (>). While social media offer the potential of creating a more informed public, there is also the danger they may contribute to a more misinformed public (+).  

The Pew Research Center's "The State of the News Media 2016" describes "tectonic shifts taking place."  The Internet has driven much of the change in the news media environment over the past two decades, and has greatly facilitated the proliferation of information.  There are numerous Internet-only news organizations in addition to strong, integral online presences developed by traditional news organizations.  Many popular sources of news and information are relatively recent arrivals, and new players such as First Look Media and Vox.com are trying to find their niches.  Yet "The State of the News Media 2016" notes, "It has been evident for several years that the financial realities of the web are not friendly to news entities, whether legacy or digital only."

Launch Years of Some Popular News and Information Sites
1995
1996
1997
1998
1999
2000
2001
2002
2003
2004
Salon.com
Slate
Drudge Report
Newsmax.com

TPM
Wikipedia
Daily Kos



2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
Huffington Post
Mashable
BuzzFeed
Politico
ProPublica
Patch
Breitbart
MinnPost
The Daily Beast
The Texas Tribune
The Daily Caller

The Internet allows any motivated individual to become a publisher.  While some blogs are first-rate, and on top of their subject matter, others don't contribute much beyond echoing what is already out there.  In this information age, stories are linked to and repeated, rapidly circulate in the blogosphere, and are minutely sliced and diced.  Buzz abounds.  A story may garner headlines but ultimately amount to little more than a "tempest in a teapot," while another story of lasting significance receives scant attention.  Readers and viewers must assess the veracity of a story as well as its importance.

The rise of the Internet has raised significant challenges for traditional media.  Print media in particular have been hit by a loss of ad revenues.  Over the past decade-plus, established news organizations have had to significantly pare back on their reporting resources.  "The State of the News Media 2016" reports, "The latest newspaper newsroom employment figures (from 2014) show 10% declines, greater than in any year since 2009, leaving a workforce that is 20,000 positions smaller than 20 years prior. And the cuts keep coming..."  Pew's report put full-time newsroom employment at nearly 33,000, the peak was in 2000.  Magazines have experienced declines in ad pages and issues at newstands.  One of the conclusions of "The Media and Campaign 2012," a special report in "The State of the News Media," is that "at a time of diminishing reporting resources, many newsmakers, in political, public and corporate life, are finding new ways to get their messages to the public—often with little or no journalistic vetting."

There are other trends.  For example "The State of the News Media 2014" finds that, "Local television, which reaches about nine in ten U.S. adults, experienced massive change in 2013, change that stayed under the radar of most."  According to the report, "Nearly 300 full-power local TV stations changed hands in 2013 at a price of more than $8 billion."

Changes big and small, including startups, mergers and acquisitions and shutdowns, continue to reshape the industry.  Some examples of activity following the 2012 campaign and leading into the 2016 campaign:

- On Mar. 6, 2013 Time Warner Inc. announced it would separate Time Inc. from the company, making it an independent, publically traded company by the end of the year. (+).

- Herring Networks, Inc. launched a new conservative cable news channel, One America News Network (OAN), on July 4, 2013 (+).

- On Aug. 5, 2013 The Washington Post Company anounced it would sell its newspaper publishing business to Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos (+).

- Fusion, "a joint venture news and lifestyle network for U.S. Hispanics," launched Oct. 28, 2013; plans for the network were first announced in Feb. 2013 (+).

- In late Oct. 2013 Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of eBay, started looking into building a news organization "based on the belief that democracy depends on a citizenry that is highly informed and deeply engaged in the issues that affect their lives."  NewCo, which became First Look Media, started with the online magazine The Intercept.  In a July 28, 2014 posting Omidyar signalled a change in emphasis, saying that "rather than building one big flagship website," he wanted to "test more ideas and grow them based on what we learn."  The effort has hit some bumps; Matt Taibbi was working on a second digital magazine, Racket, designed to take a satirical approach to American politics, but he left in Oct. 2014, and his staff was let go.

- POLITICO launched a magazine in Nov. 2013.  In addition to the online edition, print magazines are being published six times a year (+).

- In Jan. 2014 AOL Inc. and Hale Global announced an agreement to re-launch Patch, the local news and information network (+).

- Newsweek, which ceased publication of its print magazine at the end of 2012, was acquired by IBT Media in Aug. 2013.  IBT Media assumed control in Oct. 2013 and relaunched the print edition on March 7, 2014 (+).

- In Jan. 2014 Ezra Klein, author of The Washington Post's popular WonkBlog column, and several others left; on April 6, 2014 they launched Vox.com, a new brand, at online publisher Vox Media.

- In May 2014 Bloomberg announced a new brand, Bloomberg Politics, to be "created, launched, and overseen by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann;" Bloomberg Politics launched on Oct. 6, 2014 (+).

- In June 2014 ABC News launched on Apple TV (+).

- The New Republic celebrated its 100th anniversary on Nov. 19, 2014.  However, little more than two weeks later, the liberal magazine suffered a mass exodus of talent unhappy with the leadership of publisher Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who took over the magazine in March 2012.

- In Nov. 2014 CBS launched CBSN "the first digital streaming news network that will allow Internet-connected consumers to watch live, anchored news coverage on their connected TV and other devices (+)."

- Independent Journal Review, launched by Alex Skatell, has attracted attention as a "cutting-edge viral politics news website" producing such videos as "How to Destroy Your Cell Phone with Sen. Lindesy Graham" and "Making Machine-Gun Bacon with Ted Cruz." (>)

- In Aug. 2015 NBCUniversal announced strategic investements in Buzzfeed and Vox Media (+).

- After 46 years National Journal ended publication of its magazine at the end of 2015 in favor of membership services and daily news (+).

- In Oct. 2015 Gannett announced it would acquire Journal Media Group; the merger was completed in April 2016 (+). 

- NowThis, a "social video news company" launched in 2012, seems to be gaining traction.  A spokesman states, "We create 60+ pieces of video content a day and distribute these videos across Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and other social platforms. We aim to inform a social+mobile audience about the issues that matter in their lives."

- In Jan. 2016 Politico founder and pubisher Robert Allbritton reported that top figures at the news site including co-founder Jim VandeHei and Playbook's Mike Allen will be leaving (>).  VandeHei originally planned to leave after the election, but left in April.  Allen finished at Playbook on July 11 and at Politico on Nov. 15.  VandeHei planned to start a new media company in late 2016.

- In June 2016 Tribune Publishing Co., which publishes such newspapers as the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Orlando Sentinel, annouced it is rebranding as tronc, Inc., "a content curation and monetization company focused on creating and distributing premium, verified content across all channels." (+)

- In Sept. 2016 the Newspaper Association of America changed its name to News Media Alliance (+).

Bias
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).  FOX News has been described as "the right-wing echo chamber."  Conservative talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity likewise talk to the conservative base.  Meanwhile, conservatives deride the mainstream media for presenting a one-side picture of events.  Charges of liberal or conservative bias attract attention, but there are other biases.  Donald Trump's over-the-top style and pronouncements have been a magnet for media attention, while other candidates such as Bernie Sanders complain about a lack of coverage (+).  Top tier major party candidates are guaranteed coverage, even of their trivial activities, while longshot or third party candidates typically have a hard time getting coverage.  A major underlying bias at almost any news organization is simply limited resources.

From a Campaign's Point of View

The proliferation of media presents both a challenge and an opportunity for campaigns as they seek to communicate their messages.  They must be able to assess and respond to requests from national political reporters as well as local bloggers.  Some interviewers throw softballs and others curves.  Campaigns not only reach out to the news media through traditional press staff, they have new media staff producing information, graphics, videos that supporters will spread to friends and acquaintances through social media.

Organization and Focus

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 campaign and election coverage.

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, some news organizations will run in-depth profiles of the major candidates.  A first set of candidate profiles typically appears early in the campaign, perhaps in the summer or 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, some news organizations may 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. 

Issues

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.  

Polling

The media are firmly addicted to polls and devote substantial resources to conducting them.  Political reporters argue that polling data can suggest stories and provide useful insights.  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.  On Nov. 9, 2016 the America Association for Public Opinion Research issued a press release stating, "The polls clearly got it wrong this time and Donald J. Trump is the projected winner in the Electoral College.  Although Clinton may actually win the popular vote, her margin is much lower than the 3 to 4 percent lead the polls indicated.  And many of the state polls overestimated the level of support for Clinton (+)."  [www.PollingReport.com-2016]

Accountability

One important function of the media is to attempt to reign in politicians' and campaigns' tendency to bend or distort the truth.  Examples include Glenn Kessler's "Fact Checker" blog at The Washington Post and FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.  Many news organizations also 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.

On the Scene

In the fall, the major party campaigns have typically instituted a "protective pool" arrangement to ensure that reporters will be on hand to cover any activities by the candidate.  The same kind of arrangement is in place to cover the President at the White House.  The protective pool typically includes wire reporters, a wire photographer, a TV crew (rotation among ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX and NBC), and a newspaper print reporter.  In 2016 the lack of a protective pool was a source of considerable friction between the campaigns and news organizations (+).  Donald Trump typically flew on his own plane without the travelling press.  When Hillary Clinton became unsteady on Sept. 11 and was wisked away, the media were kept in the dark as to her whereabouts.

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. 

Endorsements

In the closing month of the campaign, many newspapers make endorsements.  One of the most astounding aspects of the 2016 general election campaign was the unprecedented and overwhelming number of newspaper editorials favoring Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.  Wikipedia found that Hillary Clinton received endorsements of 243 dailies and 148 weeklies compared to 20 dailies and 6 weeklies for Trump (>).  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 clealy 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. 

Branding

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 news personalities and establish brand identity.

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.


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Coverage of 2016

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