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Lessons of the Election

Lessons of the Election

By Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach

Few events in journalism reveal as much about the nature of the news culture as presidential elections.

The press focuses more resources on these events than virtually any others. With so much at stake, the partisan efforts to control and manipulate the media are more refined and disciplined.  And due to their length, elections test the ability of the press to stick to a subject and probe it deeply. Nothing else the media do is closer to their core constitutional responsibility or more clearly rationalizes the reason for a free press in the first place.

So what did we learn about the news media from the election of 2008?

We believe there are six basic lessons to be learned from the last year, many of which stem from the converging trends of shrinking newsrooms, changing technology, the growing ability of campaigns to communicate directly with the public and a continuing explosion in polling.

1. On the whole, the political press is becoming more passive and reactive than it once was. It operates, on balance, more as a conduit and enabler of the campaigns and less as a reporter uncovering unknown facts or asking independent questions.

There is still, to be sure, a good deal of superb enterprise reporting, but a higher percentage of what the media provide to the public is reactive, probably more so than at any time in generations.

More of what we learned about these candidates than once was the case came from the impressions they wanted to convey or mistakes they made on the stump.  Less of it came from the press learning things independently, turning over rocks and finding out things about these people they had not wanted us to know.

Some might consider this first criticism unfair. Don’t lump bloggers and cable TV talk fests in with the reporting press. They’re apples and oranges.

We think, however, it is important to take full stock of what people consider “the press” and the places they go for news and information. Those new media forms are part of that. Moreover, the shift toward a more reactive role can be seen in the reportorial press, as well, even in the best of it.

In 1992, perhaps a high-water mark for enterprise campaign reporting, for instance, David Maraniss of the Washington Post spent more than a year effectively becoming Bill Clinton’s biographer and won a Pulitzer Prize for the effort. Maraniss alone produced 13 major stories profiling Clinton’s past, his record and his character, during the year.  In 2008, according to an in-house audit by the Washington Post ombudsman, the paper produced three major biographical pieces about Barack Obama, the largest, again by Maraniss, who no longer worked for the paper full time, for a special section.

Or consider the Los Angeles Times, which moved two reporters to Little Rock, Arkansas, for more than a year to uncover everything they could about Clinton in 1992. Among other things, the paper uncovered the hidden draft notice that Clinton denied receiving, produced a prodigious and probing biographical profile, and, though the story ran after the election, found that state troopers reportedly used to secure women for the governor. The paper in 2008—with half the news staff it once had—produced a third as many enterprise stories about Obama as it did about Clinton 16 years earlier.

Various forces—economic, technological and political—make the political media more passive.

Newsroom cutbacks are a major one. Fewer people in a news organization means those who remain have less time to work on enterprise stories. Relatively more of their time must be spent keeping up with the events of the day. Add to that, feeding new platforms – blogs, websites, Twitter feeds and more—spread them even thinner.

Stricter and more sophisticated control by the campaigns over the press is another factor. Candidates are more removed than ever. Some of this has to do with the culture of the press bus (more on this below), and some with greater cynicism about the press and sophistication about how to manage it. Some, too, is technology, which enables both distance and message control. Campaign aides even a few yards away now often communicate via BlackBerries rather than talk to reporters face to face, one seasoned political reporter told us. (Most of these journalists spoke to us on background, so that they could be more candid without antagonizing their colleagues or bosses.)

Technology also makes reporting more reactive in another way. More of a reporter’s time is spent trying to synthesize the e-mail, documents, press releases, memos and blitzkrieg of other material coming from various sources through their computers and BlackBerries, including the designated conference calls from campaigns.

To the good, this material allows reporters access to more sources and information, potentially more balance, and makes reporting more efficient, especially on the road.

But reporters we talked to also described the avalanche of stuff coming at them as “drowning,” “bombardment,” “onslaught,” coming “with greater frequency, volume and velocity” than ever. The challenge was not to let all that set the agenda, “not to be a slave to the inbox,” said one veteran of many campaigns, and “it took constant effort,” as one bureau chief put it.

Many also voiced unease about their news organizations’ websites. However successfully people felt that they personally avoided being spun by the digital blitzkrieg, almost all said on their websites and blogs they “vacuumed it all up,” as one reporter for a national newspaper put it. A reporter from another major paper said, “We have become much less discriminating in responding, resisting and reporting, not such much in the newspaper but because of our blogs. ‘Just give me a quick blog item,’ I was told, almost every day.”

And then there is cable, which in 2008 became the primary medium for conveying the campaign to Americans on television, according to surveys. The channels devoted hours a day to observing every small item—almost all of it live. Little was said back and forth between the campaigns that was not reported quickly here, an environment where, well before this campaign began, we had noted a culture of “assertion,” where items are quickly passed on in real time without a chance to check them. Across the medium, 67% of the time on cable came from talk format or live standup. Only 23% came from reported pieces in which correspondents have control of the message.1

What press stories made a difference in 2008? Ombudsmen told us there was more reporting on the background and character of candidates during the primaries, when the process of discovery was new and went on longer. Yet arguably, the two most important stories about Obama came from a church DVD (the sermon by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.) and a tape made by a blogger doubling as a supporter (Mayhill Fowler) working for Huffington Post who recorded Obama’s statement about bitter small-town voters. The reporting on Sarah Palin’s background in Alaska by various news organizations probably represents the most memorable example of first-hand, pro-active reporting into candidate backgrounds during the general election in 2008.

Interestingly, it also attracted the harshest condemnation from the McCain campaign, which tried to squelch it.

But the bottom line is this: In 2008—and much the same could be said in 2000 with the election of President George W. Bush — we elected a president about whom we knew remarkably little, and most of it came from the impression they wanted to create, not from things the press uncovered. That was less true in the elections of Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan.

2. The Culture of the Bus has pushed campaigns farther away and put them more in control.

The press corps on the bus is now dominated by inexperienced reporters assigned to record everything that happens—so that more senior people do not have to be there. “I was stunned at the number of people covering the campaigns who had never covered any sort of campaign before – federal, state or local,” said one veteran reporter for one of the country’s top 10 papers. “In my first couple of campaigns, there were always people who were older and more experienced who I could learn from. I just don’t think that really existed for young reporters this time.”

One seasoned political writer called it “the embed culture,” a reference both to the Pentagon press program for war coverage and the system innovated by the television networks years ago to assign twenty-something researchers to body-watch the candidates and catalogue “everything that happens, most of it meaningless.”

This diarist culture has had an unintended consequence. “It mostly makes the campaigns more cautious and less willing to come back on the plane and talk to us, because everything gets picked up by the little cameras,” said one of the most senior political writers in the country. For journalists who want to do more analytic reporting, observe the candidate, talk to senior staff or probe storylines, “It makes traveling with the candidates all but useless,” said one news magazine writer. A reporter for one of the country’s elite papers agreed, saying, “More than in past years, travel with the candidates is now considered babysitting.”

This sense, that being with the candidate is actually less revealing and less useful, creates a tension. Journalists now believe that watching the candidates close up is no longer a useful way to understand them. They see the plane as an altered state, a captured or staged reality. As a result, senior political journalists increasingly are developing their perceptions and insights from afar — by watching video of the stump speeches, watching the ads, and trying to get information from aides by phone or back at headquarters, away from prying eyes and ears. The journalists in that sense are not so much our surrogate eye-witnesses with the candidates. They are informed analyst/observers deriving their impressions at a distance, not unlike any other citizen. That, however, is a different vantage point than in it once was, and it produces a different kind of journalism. By degrees, that reporting is not answering this question: “Who is this person running for president, when you get to witness them up close day after day, in ways others cannot see, burrowing around the image?” It is answering, rather more: “What is my assessment of the campaign they are projecting?”

3. The overriding bias of the political press coverage continues to be the focus on horse race, strategy and tactics—and with the explosion in polling, that bias is growing, not shrinking.

Put all the discussion of liberalism, negativism and other questions of bias aside. Despite decades of criticism by scholars and sporadic efforts by journalists to alter the balance, the dominant lens through which the press saw the race in 2008 was who was winning and losing and why.

And our sense is that this is only deepening and becoming more pervasive.

Between January 2007 and Election Day, we examined 24,684 campaign stories at the Project for Excellence in Journalism. In all, 58% of that coverage—the space studied in newspapers and online and time on television and radio—focused on the horse race (strategy, tactics, polling, who is winning). Another 13% focused on three other purely campaign internals (largely fundraising and advertising). In all, thus close to 71% of all the coverage was about political process.

Everything else paled. In all, 13% of the coverage focused on policy. Another 7% looked at the candidates’ personal biography. Just 3% were framed around their public record. (And 6% of the newshole looked at the electorate and miscellaneous other matters.)

We do not mean to debate whether the horse race bias is justified. A squadron of political writers will remind that the campaign is a horse race after all, and that how a candidate runs their campaign says something about how they might govern. On the other side, the evidence that voters want something more from their coverage than this is overwhelming—in survey data, scholarly literature, in the questions voters ask at town halls and debates and elsewhere.

Our point here, rather, is that the horse race bias is not only huge but that it is growing, not diminishing.

Our content studies over the years offer a hint that there is more horse race now. Earlier studies, though they were just snapshots of a month or so during the general election, found 55% horse race coverage in 2004 and 65% in 2000.2

While there are host of reasons why horse race coverage is growing, the biggest is the explosion in public polling. From 1992 to 2008, the number of survey organizations conducting national campaign polls tripled, according to tracking by National Council on Public Polls. (And the council’s number may be low. Pollster.com, a website that tracks the industry, counted 46 organizations conducting national polls in 2008, but it does not have data from earlier years.)

There are also more poll releases. The Pollster.com website counted 491 polls released from January 1 through Election Day, an average of 1.58 polls per day.3

A big reason for this extraordinary number is the acceptability of publicly releasing daily tracking polls, which gets a news organization’s name, and that of its pollster, in the media slipstream. As recently as 1992, releasing daily tracking was considered controversial because the numbers tended to move up and down erratically. The polls are still erratic, but the hesitation about releasing them is gone. In 2008, Gallup alone in the final weeks released three different tracking polls daily (with three different definitions of who was likely to vote).

With more polls to report, other factors then magnify their effect. Cable, with all its time to fill and the discovery that a near-Ahab-like focus on politics would help ratings, examined each new poll finding with credulous fascination. Surveys also provide places like MSNBC.com, Yahoo News, or Google News, and the political Web pages of even more traditional news sites, with constant updates of manufactured news.

Polls, too, were significant grist for alternative or citizen media on the Web, in particular for a host of innovative and interesting political websites that focus on politics, places like RealClearPolitics.com or FiveThirtyEight.com, that aggregate the proliferating polls, making them easier to track and average into new polls—the RCP Average (often referred to on Fox and elsewhere). FiveThirtyEight added sophisticated weighting and regression analysis. The sites made almost instantly available the kind of data aggregation that only a few years ago would have required a lengthy interview with a political scientist.

And to some extent, the growing charges of liberal bias against the press also make polls and strategy a safe haven, a place or lens through which to analyze the race that people of all stripes can agree.

All this enlarges a particular media syndrome that might be best described as the media echo effect. The expansion of polls, and the media’s fascination with seeing the race through their strategic lens, creates a repeating and reinforcing pattern in which the media reinforce and then magnify any phenomena they observe. The press covers what the candidate does that day. The polls measure the political impact of that behavior. The media then analyze whether the latest campaign performance is helping in the polls. And that in turn influences the candidate’s behavior.

And winning in the polls begets winning coverage. Indeed, our analysis found that when he was rising in the polls and edging ahead of Barack Obama just after the Republican convention, John McCain received more positive coverage than his rival. When he began to falter during the economic meltdown, the tone of that coverage changed markedly.  And it was just so with Obama. While his coverage was not overwhelmingly positive (in the same way that McCain’s was overwhelmingly negative), the balance of that tone rose and fell with his poll numbers.

4. The 24-hour media abdicated a good deal of their newshole to spin doctors, surrogates and partisans.

This is another dimension of the more passive press. With fewer people on staff, more space is given to partisans, surrogates and spin doctors to push their party agendas. And often these people are identified as “analysts” or as “contributors.”

The phenomenon is most clearly seen on cable television, where on two of the channels the appeal of a good many shows is clearly partisan or ideological in nature.

To probe this point, at PEJ we analyzed the coverage of the three cable channels on different election nights during the year—on February 5 (Super Tuesday), May 13 (the West Virginia primary) and June 3 (Montana and South Dakota).

On all three, large chunks of time were handed over to so-called analysts or contributors who were, by all practical measures, surrogates, even if they weren’t clearly described as such.

On MSNBC, for instance, “contributors” filled 17% of the airtime, but most of them—filling 82% of that contributor time—were people with clear preferences, though they were not always labeled so. Gene Robinson, who was identified as a journalist from the Washington Post, for instance, was manifestly an early Obama supporter, though that was never made explicit. Add in the 22% of time filled by staff at MSNBC who had their clear preferences, particularly Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, and 39% of the time from 8 to 11 p.m. on the three primary election days was filled with partisans and surrogates. Now add in another 27%, the time given to those who were explicitly labeled as candidate surrogates (or the candidates themselves), and a total of 66% of the airtime was filled with candidate spin.

On Fox News, that number was almost identical, 40% of the time was filled by partisans, spin doctors or unlabeled surrogates —broken down into 27% by contributors and guests who were partisans (not including elected officials) and 13% by staff such as Sean Hannity, Alan Colmes and Bill O’Reilly. Then add in the candidates or their explicit surrogates, 27% more, and the number jumps to 68%.

On CNN, the numbers were smaller: 14% of the time was filled with contributors who were really partisans, people such as Republicans Alex Castellanos and William Bennett, Democrats Paul Begala, James Carville and Donna Brazile, or even pro-Obama “analysts” such as Roland Martin or Jamal Simmons. Only David Gergen, among the contributors on CNN, came across genuinely independent in his remarks. Another 21% were candidates and their formal surrogates, so the number of partisans rises to 35%.

All this represents another element in the new political culture of the news media operating as a conduit rather than an intermediating filter.
Nor does it include the raft of new media channels, such as the websites of the campaigns themselves or their offshoots, or bloggers who operate further as extensions of the campaigns.

5. Contrary to predictions, this was not the first “Internet Campaign.” It was really, rather, the first “Hybrid Campaign.” The old media and the new tended to play interdependent and complementary roles.

It is easy to find predictions of the Internet’s ascendancy over politics, especially online. “The ‘first Internet campaign’ … has finally happened,” blogger Ed Cone wrote on election eve. “The entire media universe has been subsumed into the network of networks.”

New technology no doubt played a major role in 2008. It was considered significant in 2004 that Democrat Howard Dean had a website with a blog. His campaign used the site to raise millions and to organize “meet ups” — events set up online but occurring in the real world. John Kerry subsequently used the Internet to make up some of the fundraising deficit he faced against President Bush.

Four years later, such accomplishments seemed small by comparison to how Obama used of the Internet. His website contained social networking with nearly 10 million “friends,” allowed voters to blog, made it easy for supporters to pick up the latest news and talking points, download campaign posters and flyers, make computer-assisted phone calls to undecided voters in swing states, and map out door-to-door canvassing operations in their areas. If Obama represented a new kind of politics, his website was the most accessible symbol of that newness. And his campaign, in part thanks the net, shattered all previous assumptions about fundraising techniques or amounts.

John McCain’s site eventually offered similar tools that encouraged online networking with fellow supporters, facilitated letter-writing campaigns to newspapers and blogs, and helped supporters organize neighborhood fundraisers.

This was a meaningful evolution in the way candidates communicated.

But the old media were far from irrelevant. A more nuanced understanding of the media network is that the old and the new media were interdependent and often complementary. And the nature of the story tended to determine which media were most important at the moment.

To see just how complementary the old and new media are, consider one of the more important moments of old media in the race—the Katie Couric interviews on CBS News with Sarah Palin. The event was traditional—a candidate one-on-one with a network news anchor. The reach of those interviews was dramatically expanded, however, by YouTube. The week the interviews ran, 500,000 more people watched the television newscast cumulatively than had the week before (though the interview nights were not the most watched program that week).4 But the interviews drew nearly six times as many viewings on CBS’ YouTube channel during the election campaign, where there were 2.7 million viewings.

Or consider Barack Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia on March 18, delivered at 11 a.m., in response to criticism of Wright, his former pastor. Roughly 4 million people watched the speech on cable news, about double the channels’ regular daytime audience. But 5.5 million watched it on YouTube.

Which medium mattered most at any one moment tended to depend on the nature of the story. The day that Palin, the governor of Alaska, was named McCain’s running mate, for instance, most traditional reporters were in transit from the Democratic convention in Denver to the Republican convention in Minneapolis. The moment was ideally suited to bloggers, who in large numbers could quickly cull records and archives readily available on the net, and perhaps more quickly than mainstream journalists might have. Within hours, bloggers had raised questions about her record on the Bridge to Nowhere, her tenure as mayor of Wasilla, and her efforts to have her former brother-in-law removed as a state trooper, all largely based on the archives of Alaska newspapers such as the Anchorage Daily News. A long, often critical but also carefully nuanced and at times praiseworthy e-mail from a critic of hers in Wasilla was distributed widely. A good deal of what was known about Palin in those first two days came from blog work.

A week later, however, a change had occurred. Reporters from traditional news organizations had made their way to Alaska, were interviewing people in Alaska politics, and the picture of Palin began to be filled out by old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, beyond what could be culled from the archives of the local press.

The two media were hardly in competition. They informed each other.

6. The press’ wider embrace of fact checking political statements is one area where the journalists have tried to be more pro-active and push against the tide, but it can improve.

The fact checking phenomenon dates back only to 1990. That year, a series of news organizations in large states where political ads played a particularly major role—most notably the Dallas Morning News, the Los Angeles Times and the ABC television affiliate in Austin, Texas—determined that the media needed to do more to police the advertising that was influencing voter and that was then largely unmonitored.

This first generation of fact checking of ads came to be known as “truth boxes” because they often ran as graphics, with images of the ads in them and a spare amount of text that cogently dissected the ads.

While truth boxes had an uneven history, in time, journalists began to think they needed to also police other rhetoric from the candidates. Debates were among the first areas to be also go under the gaze of the truth squads, as early as 1992. And in 2004, former CNN ad watcher Brooks Jackson joined the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania to create FactCheck.org, which became a resource for all news organizations monitoring any kind of rhetoric.

This year, the fact checking grew more robust. Among the most impressive was PolitiFact.com, a creation of the St. Petersburg Times and its sibling, Congressional Quarterly. It is an interesting example of a regional newspaper adding a feature that involved covering national politics, rather than just local, in a way that others were not. But others added their own teams, including the Washington Post.

Some critics charged the efforts seemed to do little to stem the tide of negative, exaggerated attacks in politics. Politico, the political website and newspaper, even wondered whether the proliferation of fact checking had the unintended effect of diminishing the press’ authority as an authenticator. So many fact checkers might create the impression they were just another source of campaign chatter and Politico asked: “Has the drumbeat of fact checks blended into white noise, letting significant misstatements and deceptions get lost in the mix.”

More press monitoring is never going to stop politicians from exaggerating their claims—and now there are even more ways for political figures to assert those claims around the media filter. An analysis by Mark Glaser at PBS found that the predictable and less independent fact checking efforts of partisan websites such as Media Matters (on the left) and NewsBusters (on the right) enjoyed far more traffic than the independent and more credible work of news organizations.

Yet that hardly means the press should stop trying. Journalists would have even less to offer if they abandoned trying to sort out what is a fact and what is not.

It is also true that fact checking won’t determine how voters will react to the claims of candidates. Some people thought Al Gore’s tendency to exaggerate on small facts was fairly insignificant compared to large indirections about policy of some other politicians. But others considered Gore’s habit of gilding the lily a window into something about his character, an odd need to please and impress that was deeply unsettling. It is beyond the press to say which reaction is correct.

But the fact checking can do more—and should. We want to propose two ways.

First, once the press has checked a fact and found it questionable, it needs to find a way to make the corrected record more permanent. Fact checking will have the ironic effect of undermining a news organization’s daily reporting if the questionable assertions continue to appear in subsequent days.

If candidates continue to make assertions that are untrue or misleading, news outlets should either not repeat those questionable assertions or should note, consistently and wherever they appear, that it has determined them to be doubtful. And other news organizations, if they believe the assertions questionable, might want to cite those doubts as well, even if it came from outside sources such as a rival organization or an independent one such as FactCheck.org.

This consistency is important.  The press has to find a way to continue to remind people that the assertion found to questionable is no more true the next day than the first time the candidate uttered it.

Second, the fact checking the press does needs to get at larger truths.

There is tendency for this work to be rather literal. Did John McCain really call for deregulation 21 times in 2008? Did Michelle Obama really order $400 worth of lobster and caviar at a New York hotel? (Both of these are answered at PolitiFact.com.)

This basic fact checking is important and should continue. Candidates make inflated charges because they think they will hurt the other side and they can get away with it. It is useful to know whether Barack Obama really voted to raise taxes 94 times or not.

But it would be also helpful to know, on balance, which candidate was proposing to raise taxes more, on whom, where and roughly by how much. This would involve looking at a variety of claims from the candidates and putting them together.

There is a way to weave the facts you check into a context of many facts that tell a bigger picture. There is also a way to separate small distortions from large, and tell us whose distortions are bigger.

This is harder work. It is easier to determine whether a number is correct or not than to determine which policy may have what effect. And in some cases, perhaps a good many, the verdict might not be clear.

But failing to try to add up the small fact checking into something more meaningful leads to a dangerous and, we suspect, unintended implication: it suggests that there is no bigger picture, that all the policy proposals are just so many words designed to manipulate, some inflated more than others, but not adding up to much in the end. By this reckoning, the sum total of fact checking is which candidate has fudged more small details, as if that were the measure of character.

This larger fact checking will be harder, without a doubt. It will also involve more than what a researcher might be able to accomplish with archives. It may require going to experts, doing more reporting and making interpretative connections. It may not be where the fact checking in the next election should begin. But it is a place to aim for where it might end.

Call it truth squadding, if you will, not just fact checking. But we think it is what citizens want, and where the press needs to aspire.

Footnotes

1. Most of the rest came from anchors reading the teleprompter or engaged in banter on the set

2. The 2000 and 2004 studies covered two-week time periods during the general election. The 2008 data covers the entire year.

3. Real Clear Politics counted 47 polling organizations

4. Bill Carter, “Palin Effect on Ratings Only Modest for CBS,” New York Times, October 1, 2008