April 20, 2010

Hiding in Plain Sight, From Kennedy to Brown

Topics of Coverage

The dynamics of the Massachusetts Senate race changed dramatically from the fall to the winter. What had been a polite primary contest on the Democratic side and a Republican race that garnered minimal attention turned into a heated general election contest between two candidates with major policy disagreements.

Despite that, the focus of coverage did not change markedly from the primary election to the general election.

This study examined that focus two different ways: first by the nominal “topic” of each story—what was being discussed—and also by the “framing” of those topics, or the narrative theme by which the subjects were approached. A debate over domestic policy, for instance, could explore the differences between the candidates on the subject. Or it might be cast in a tactical lens, focusing on the possible political motives for a candidate staking out a particular position. The framing can shape the way audiences respond.

Primary Campaign

When it came to the topics covered during the primary campaign, the question of who would run dominated, accounting for 20% of all the coverage. Endorsements accounted for another 10%, and evaluations of how the candidates performed on the stump—often in closely watched debates—filled another 10%.

In all, politically oriented topics constituted two-thirds (67%) of all the primary coverage.

Two other topics that shed light on candidates—their personal and family lives as well as their records in public life—combined to make up 17% of all the stories.

The primary campaign was not marked by significant discussion of the issues—perhaps because there weren’t major disagreements among the top Democratic competitors. All of the coverage even nominally about policy accounted for 14% of stories.

The overwhelming majority of those policy issues were domestic, led by health care (about 4% of all stories), a debate that erupted in November after Martha Coakley announced she would not support a health care reform bill that limited coverage of abortion. It proved to be one of the very few policy flashpoints in the Democratic field.

The only other issue to generate even moderate coverage was economics, which accounted for 3% of all of the stories.

Foreign policy topics barely registered on the radar screen, at a combined 1% of the coverage. The only specific overseas hotspot to generate any coverage at all (two stories) was the escalating conflict in Afghanistan.

To some degree, coverage of the primary season was also distinguished by what topics didn’t generate much coverage—including some that generally tend to be larger components of the strategic narrative.

Advertising accounted for only 3% of all of the coverage, perhaps because with few exceptions, the campaign ads in this primary election were relatively restrained and light on negativity. Attention to polls, measures of strategic and tactical success that can often drive a horse-race based media narrative was almost nonexistent here, accounting for less than 1% of the coverage (or one story, which was about a Suffolk University poll.)

General Election

As was the case in the primary election, political topics dominated coverage from January 6-19 as the horse-race and strategic coverage intensified.

Fully 69% of the general campaign stories were about political topics (it had been 67% during the primaries). The specific focus of these political topics was slightly different, however. About a third (32%) of all stories during the general election were about the horse race, twice the percentage in the primary campaign (16%). During the final two weeks of the race, a number of prominent national politicians, including Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Bill Clinton came to the state to make final pushes for their prospective candidates. And endorsements were a bigger part of the story (15%) in the general election than in the primary (10%).

The general election also saw a moderate increase in the percentage of stories that were focused on domestic policy issues, largely because of speculation, which in the end turned out to be wrong, about how the outcome of the Senate race might kill health care reform. During the final weeks of the campaign, 16% of the stories were about domestic policy topics, compared with 12% during the primaries. Health care was the issue that drew the most attention, as Brown made his opposition to Obama’s health care reform plan a centerpiece of his campaign. More than a third of that policy coverage, or fully 6% of the stories during the final weeks, was about that issue.

Other aspects of the campaign that generated little attention during the primaries also got largely ignored in the final stages of the general campaign. Only 1% of the stories focused on the campaign fundraising, despite large amounts of money being donated to both campaigns from other states. And there were no stories in the study that centered on foreign policy issues.