On the eve of the U.S. Republican and Democratic Parties’ National Conventions, major media events during which the parties will officially nominate their presidential and vice-presidential candidates, the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has reported that the journalist’s role in shaping the presidential contenders' personal narratives has been steadily shrinking over the past four campaign cycles. Meanwhile, partisan voices have been assuming a greater degree of direct control over media messages about each candidate’s character and biography.
Partisan sources of information include the candidates themselves, their campaign surrogates (people who represent the campaigns in an official capacity), spin-doctors, political allies, super PAC’s and political ads. As their influence over the media narrative grows, “the press is acting more as an enabler or conduit and less as an autonomous reportorial source,” according to the Pew report, titled “The Master Character Narratives in Campaign 2012,” which was published Thursday, and is based on an examination of the candidates’ portrayals in over 800 stories by 50 major news outlets over a 10-week period ending in August.
This is fourth such study that the Pew Center has carried out. The first, conducted during the 2000 presidential race, found that reporters and talk show personalities accounted for 50 percent of assertions about the characters and personal biographies of the candidates, while the parties’ campaigns and their allies represented 37 percent. This year’s survey saw a near-reversal of influence, with the press accounting for 27 percent of assertions, and partisan sources for 48 percent (see chart below). One explanation, according to Pew, is newsrooms' shrinking resources.
The phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the digital realm, where Pew observes that an emphasis on breaking news increases the temptation to source statements from interested parties, which are quickest to respond to new developments, as opposed to consulting experts, polls or voters. On digital platforms, campaigns and their allies were the sources of a striking 58 percent of assertions about candidate narratives.
Partisan voices accounted for only 40 percent of this type of messaging in newspapers, where voters contributed 14 percent and polls 15 percent (compared to 5 and 6 percent overall). However, journalists do not play a significantly bigger role in shaping narratives in print than elsewhere; they account for 21 percent of statements about the candidates. Overall, journalists account for 19 percent of these assertions, meaning that they remain the largest single source of narratives about the presidential candidates, followed closely by the candidates themselves (18 percent) and surrogates (13 percent). Notably, 41 percent of the time that surrogates were used as sources they were presented as either anonymous or on background, reported Pew, "meaning that a formal staffer was allowed to talk about a candidate without being named." This is up from 33 percent in 2004.
This year, contributing to the trend of parties seizing more control over media narratives, the Republican Party has unveiled a Facebook app called “The Convention Without Walls,” which is designed to allow participants to access content from the conference directly. Due to begin in Tampa Florida today, the Republican National Convention has been delayed due to a tropical storm, and its official programming will begin tomorrow. The Democratic National Convention is set to kick off on September 3rd in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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