February 3, 2000

In the Public Interest?

What Triggers a Story?

What makes something a story in campaign coverage? Apparently, the decisions of reporters, editors, correspondents and producers are the main answer. Fully 54% of all stories were initiated not by events outside but within the newsroom in the form of analytical or enterprise stories. The most common of these was to do analysis stories, which made up 42% of all the press driven coverage. Another quarter of these press driven stories were enterprise pieces that probed the candidate's history, the status of the campaign, etc. Media polls made up another 10% of the media driven stories.

Policing political advertising and rhetoric did not constitute a sizable amount of the coverage, as mentioned above under the watchdog role.

The second most common way to make news is through what the candidates say themselves, but it was much less likely to generate a story than was the enterprise or analysis of journalists. Roughly 15% of the stories were initiated by an individual candidate speaking on the stump.

Looking deeper, it is not true that the candidate needs to talk trash to make news. Candidates generated slightly more stories (9%) with non-accusatory rhetoric than with attack statements, which accounted for just 6% of all stories. This does not, however, account for nasty things a candidate might have said in a debate. Another 9% of the coverage was triggered by debates, a place where such vitriol seems generally safer, presumably because the opponent is there and can defend himself.

Trigger and Topic

Candidates apparently want to talk about policy more than do others in the campaign community, including the press. When stories were triggered by something the candidate said or did, roughly half (48%) were policy related. In contrast, when the press initiates a story, it seems to be most interested in politics. A notable 58% of all press-initiated stories were about internal political topics. The press divided the rest of its stories among policy topics (14%), the personal background of the candidates (13%) and the electorate at large (11%).

When others trigger stories-be they outside observers, campaign surrogates or advertisements, the topic was also largely political in nature (61% and 62% respectively).

Trigger and Frame

Even when candidates triggered stories about policy topics, journalists did not always develop those into policy stories. Stories triggered by candidates were usually either a straight account of what the candidate said or did (72%) or were developed around tactics and strategy (16%).

Only 3% of stories triggered by the candidates were written or produced by journalists as explorations of their policy positions.

Stories the press initiated, on the other hand, were mostly about tactics and strategy (28%) or the electorate and the nature of politics (22%). Another 14% developed the theme of who was winning or losing.