July 21, 2010

Midterms in the Media Spotlight

% of Newshole
Aug 2009 0.2
Sep 2009 0.8
Oct 2009 0.7
Nov 2009 0.7
Dec 2009 0.4
Jan 2010 3
Feb 2010 3.7
Mar 2010 2.3
Apr 2010 3.9
May 2010 8.5
Jun 2010 5.8
Jul 2010* 7.1

No. 4 – Rank of the 2010 elections among top stories this year

With the 2010 midterm elections approaching, attention to the subject has been heating up.  White House press secretary Robert Gibbs’ suggestion that Democrats could lose the House in November—one that triggered anger among some Democrats—became a key narrative in last week’s 2010 coverage. Driven by this storyline, the 2010 midterm elections filled 6.4% of the newshole from July 12-18, making it the No. 3 topic in the news agenda.

But last week’s coverage was not an isolated phenomenon. Attention to the midterm election season has been on a steady climb this year to the point that it now ranks as the No. 4 story of the year—behind only the economy, the Gulf oil spill and the health care debate.

In 2009, coverage of the subject was minimal, remaining below 1.0% of the newshole for most of the year. In the first three months of 2010, however, attention to the campaign filled 2.9% of the newshole. In the second quarter, that jumped to 6.2%. And so far in July, coverage has grown further—to 7.1%.

A PEJ examination of campaign coverage indicates that it began to pick up—due in significant measure to some major primary races—after the late March passage of health care legislation. At that point, talk show hosts and pundits, among others, seemed to turn some of their attention from health care to the 2010 election.

And some weeks stood out for their particularly high level of attention to the election cycle. Primary victories by tea party favorite Rand Paul in Kentucky’s Republican Senate race and Joe Sestak over converted Democrat Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s Senate primary helped fill 17.9% of the newshole the week of May 17-23.

The following week (May 24-30), coverage filled 10.0% of the newshole. It was driven by Paul’s controversial statement that government should not force businesses to adhere to civil rights laws and Sestak’s assertion that he was offered a position in the Obama Administration if he agreed not to run against Specter. And the week of June 7-13, campaign coverage filled 12.9% of the newshole when Blanche Lincoln won a close Democratic primary in Arkansas and Alvin Green—a virtually unknown candidate who did not run a formal campaign—became the surprise Democratic Senate nominee in South Carolina.

Another week of significant coverage (7.5%) occurred from July 5-11, which included news about hotly contested races in California and Ohio and the release of a Gallup poll showing a drop in President Obama’s support among independents.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ

*July 1-18, 2010