April 20, 2010

Hiding in Plain Sight, From Kennedy to Brown

Dateline

One other variable reveals some hints about why the print press, both nationally and locally, may have been so caught off guard by the insurgent feeling about the Democratic Party and the rising support for Brown.

In both the primary and general election campaigns, the dateline, or the location from which a story originated, was overwhelmingly oriented toward Boston, the biggest city, capital and media center of Massachusetts—and also among the most Democratic cities in the state. There were not many stories that originated from the other 350 municipalities in the commonwealth.

In the primary period from September 1-December 8, fully 96% of the campaign stories carried Boston datelines, compared with 2% from other communities in the state and another 2% from the national media capital of New York.

In the two-week period of the general election studied—January 6-19—those numbers shifted modestly, with 84% of the stories originating from Boston. The number of stories from other Massachusetts cities and towns edged up to 6%, presumably as reporters began following the candidates more regularly in their travels.

Yet the biggest increase occurred in two major cities outside of the state as stories with a New York or Washington dateline combined to account for 10% of the coverage—a sure sign that the race had been nationalized and was attracting widespread interest outside of Massachusetts.

Does the dateline breakdown tell us anything important about the coverage? It’s difficult to draw firm lessons. But the relative scarcity of datelines from Massachusetts communities outside Boston does at least raise the possibility that the centralized geographic coverage made it more difficult to detect Brown’s building momentum at the grassroots level, something that might have been more readily apparent if journalists had explored more of the state.