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Pew Report: Candidates and Partisans, Not the Media, Control Campaign Coverage | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Pew Report: Candidates and Partisans, Not the Media, Control Campaign Coverage

The top media-related story line for today is the saga of the local TV reporter in Denver who succumbed to the Romney camp’s demand that she avoid asking certain questions (e.g., about Akin) in an interview. She then blew the whistle on the demand, gaining wide publicity. The Obama campaign released a video about it, naturally.

Lost in the shuffle was a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released Thursday, so I’ll give that a little attention here.

The news hook for the report belongs to its assessment of the overall negative coverage of Obama and Romney so far—the media “narrative” has been about 72 percent critical in both cases—and going back to compare this with previous contests. But the study also led to these conclusions (the following are directly from the report):

• Journalists are a shrinking source in shaping the candidate narratives, while campaigns and partisans have assumed a much larger role in defining the press discourse. Reporters (and talk-show personalities) account for about half as many of the assertions about the candidates’ character and biography as they did twelve years ago—27 percent versus 50 percent in 2000. At the same time, campaigns, their surrogates and allies now account for nearly half of these themes, 48 percent, up from 37 percent in 2000. That shift, giving partisans a bigger role in shaping the media narrative, has been gradual and may reflect in part the shrinking reportorial resources in newsrooms.

• Campaigns have an even bigger voice in shaping the narrative online. On the twelve most prominent news websites in the country, campaigns and surrogates are behind 58 percent of statements studied about the record and character of the candidates—the highest of any medium. Outside experts have the smallest presence in the coverage online, making up just 2 percent of statements (versus 10 percent generally). The top political stories online tend to be breaking news, and this orientation may account for the larger role that partisans play here in shaping the narrative. Candidates and their allies put a premium on rapid response to ensure that their messaging is available in the early accounts of any news.

• Voter perceptions vary from the media narrative. When we surveyed these personal themes with voters, the strongest impression was that 52 percent thought Obama was a person of good moral character—though it represented just 1 percent of the coverage about him and 10 percent of the coverage suggested the opposite. The theme about Romney that resonated most with voters was that he was prone to gaffes. Nearly half of voters, 47 percent associate him with that.

This led to this important wrap: “One conclusion, however, is unavoidable: Journalists to an increasing degree are ceding control of what the public learns in elections to partisan voices. Less of what we are hearing is coming from the press as an independent intermediary, filtering or assessing political rhetoric. And to that degree, the press is acting more as an enabler or conduit and less as an autonomous reportorial source.”

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