July 2, 2012 — For decades, growing numbers of scholarly studies have criticized mass media coverage of election campaigns as generally unhelpful to voters. Key complaints have included that the coverage often focuses on the horse race rather than how the candidates would address important issues, and that reporters appear to treat some candidates more harshly than others.
Do reporters covering Virginia gubernatorial elections do a better job than their counterparts on the presidential election campaign trail?
A study by two media scholars, published in the current issue of The Virginia News Letter, published by the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, finds that, in one state election at least, the Virginia media produced much more thorough and balanced work than reporters in national elections.
Stephen J. Farnsworth of the University of Mary Washington and S. Robert Lichter of George Mason University analyzed the content of newspaper and television stories on the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial contest between Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, the Democratic nominee; Jerry Kilgore, the Republican nominee, who had been serving as attorney general; and state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., a maverick Republican who campaigned as an independent. Kaine ended up receiving 52 percent of the vote, Kilgore 46 percent, and Potts less than 3 percent.
"While we hesitate to generalize too much from news coverage of a single gubernatorial campaign," Farnsworth and Lichter write, "when we compare the results of the state press corps to the national press treatment of presidential elections, we find much more effective journalism in the state-level campaign."
They found that the Richmond Times-Dispatch provided particularly extensive campaign coverage, with 118 news stories on the gubernatorial contest during the final 39 days of the campaign. "The Washington Post, with 96 stories during the same period, also did an effective job in terms of campaign news volume, particularly when one considers that the paper must also cover politics in Maryland and the District of Columbia," they wrote.
The other two papers studied – The Virginian-Pilot of Hampton Roads and the Roanoke Times – provided less coverage, but both still averaged more than a story per day on the election campaign, Farnsworth and Lichter found.
Television election coverage was more scarce¸ the researchers found. Stations in the Washington metropolitan area especially "did not provide enough news to inform their viewers about the candidates for governor that year," they write.
As for the amount of issue-focused coverage provided by the state press corps, they also found "a relatively positive performance, particularly on the part of the print outlets." Only about 25 percent of the Virginia print articles focused on the candidates' campaigns rather than issues, "while horse-race journalism has always exceeded 40 percent of campaign news content on network television," the researchers found.
In addition, there was significant Virginia media coverage of state issues during the campaign, especially taxation, transportation, crime and the death penalty. There was also a significant coverage that related to the job performance in elected office of the two major party rivals.
"In fairness to the national reporters who cover presidential campaigns, there are far more polls conducted in the race for the White House, making it much easier – and perhaps more tempting – to emphasize horse-race news at the national level," Farnsworth and Lichter write. "Perhaps at least part of the difference between presidential and gubernatorial horse-race coverage, at least in Virginia in 2005, stems from the abundance of national voter surveys."
There are frequent allegations of partisan bias in national election coverage, especially with television news – a trend that the researchers said was not reflected in state election coverage.
"Once again, the state media did a better job than the television networks," they wrote, finding that the coverage favored Kaine by a tiny 52 percent to 49 percent margin. "All four newspapers were far more even-handed in their news pages than were the networks in their coverage of the 2004 and the 2008 presidential elections.
"The even-handedness seen here is particularly notable when the data are broken down further to examine the tone of coverage for specific areas of evaluation, including ideology, previous job performance and campaign performance or by leading issue area, including capital punishment, taxes and transportation."
The authors concluded, "Reporters covering election campaigns at all levels have a difficult job, made worse in these times of economic problems and rapid change for mass media. The news media could perhaps serve voters best by focusing more resources on important issues and examining in-depth what candidates' proposals would mean."
Farnsworth is professor of political science and international affairs at Mary Washington, where he directs the Center for Leadership and Media Studies. Lichter is a professor of communication at George Mason, where he directs both the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which conducts scientific studies of the news and entertainment media, and the Statistical Assessment Service, which works to improve the quality of statistical and scientific information in the news.
– by Robert Brickhouse
About The Virginia News Letter
The Virginia News Letter, issued six to eight times per year, is devoted to Virginia public policy issues. Authors are drawn from the Cooper Center, elsewhere at the University of Virginia, other public and private higher education institutions in Virginia, and non-academic experts in the state. Each issue features an article by a different author.
The article can be accessed here.