April 20, 2010

Hiding in Plain Sight, From Kennedy to Brown

Press Coverage of the 2010 Massachusetts Senate Special Election

The national media lost interest almost immediately, and then horse-race coverage dominated what was considered a fairly dull and utterly local contest. And when it became clear something was up, it was polling—not journalistic reporting—that caught the wave in the race to succeed Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

In the end, a campaign that first seemed to lack drama and star power was the most important and intensely covered political story in the country. And while they were certainly not alone, the press never saw it coming.

These are some of the findings in a new study produced by Boston University and the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism about how newspapers covered the Massachusetts special election to fill the seat created by Kennedy’s death. The study covered two time periods. The first was the Democratic and Republican primary races from September 1-December 8, 2009. The second was the final two weeks of the general election campaign from January 6-19, 2010, when the media began to sense there was an actual contest for the seat.

That second period began one day after a Rasmussen Report’s poll that showed the overwhelming Republican underdog, Scott Brown, climbing to within single digits (nine points) of Martha Coakley. That poll, perhaps more than anything else, signaled that a possible upset was brewing and galvanized both the media and political worlds.

Brown’s January 19 victory was seen as such a stunning national bellwether that it was the second-biggest story in the national media the week of January 18-24. But it followed a primary season that was largely static and devoid of drama. A cautious Coakley campaign outdistanced three challengers on the Democratic side, and in a race that got scant media attention, Brown defeated a marginal candidate in a landslide.

To understand how the campaign played out in the press, the study examined how the two newspapers in Boston—The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald—covered the race both in their news and opinion pages. It also examined how the national print media covered the race by examining the coverage by the Associated Press and the New York Times.

Among the findings:

  • The media, even locally, were utterly surprised by the support for Scott Brown. He was barely covered in the primaries. Brown got far less coverage than any of the four top Democrats and only moderately more coverage (8%) than ex-Congressman Joseph Kennedy (4%), who never entered the race. In addition, there were only about 70 stories about the general election in the month after the primary before the extent of Brown’s surge became known.
  • In the two weeks after the Rasmussen poll, coverage picked up frantically. The New York Times and Associated Press produced almost twice as many stories in final the two weeks from January 6-19 as they did in the entire three months from September 1-December 8. Locally, nearly one-quarter of all the Boston Globe’s election coverage occurred in the final two weeks. Herald coverage accelerated further, with nearly 40% of all its campaign stories published in that period.
  • The depiction of the players shifted just as dramatically. Democrat Martha Coakley went from being portrayed as a cautious but competent and clean politician to an incompetent bumbler. In the primaries, positive coverage outweighed negative coverage of her 45% to 27%.  In the final two weeks of the campaign, those numbers became a virtual reverse image, 27% positive, 42% negative. Conversely, Scott Brown went from receiving a polite but dismissive portrayal of a good looking non-contender to a surging populist star, with positive stories in the general election outweighing negative ones by more than 2 to1.
  • There were big differences between the two major papers in Boston, particularly in the tone of candidate coverage. In the primaries, both papers endorsed the Democrat who was treated most favorably in their pages—Michael Capuano in the Herald and Alan Khazei in the Globe. In the general election, the Herald treated Brown much more favorably (43% positive and 17% negative) than the Globe did(26% positive and 29% negative). The Globe’s tone on Coakley (38% positive and 29% negative) was much more positive than the Herald’s (14% positive, 63% negative).
  • One reason the press may have missed what was occurring in the state and how the race would eventually play out is that the papers rarely ventured outside of the city of Boston. In the primary election, only 2% of the stories bore a dateline from a Massachusetts location other than Boston. In the general election, that number grew to 6%, but that is still less than the 10% of stories with either a New York or Washington dateline. That data at least raises the possibility that some of Brown’s momentum went undetected because reporters weren’t getting around the state on a regular basis.
  • Following intense initial interest, it became clear that the national media, and to some extent local media, turned their attention to other matters once some well-known personalities—such as Joseph Kennedy and ex-Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling—decided not to run. Indeed, the No. 1 topic of all media coverage of the primary from September 1-December 8 involved speculation over who would run, accounting for 20% of all of the primary campaign stories