Broadcast television, radio news, and the mainstream print and online newspapers and newsmagazines have enormous influence on the presidential election process. These pillars of the traditional media are still the sources from which the majority of Americans get most of their news and information about the candidates, the issues, and the election.
In recent years, however, Americans have become increasingly disenchanted with the traditional media and their dominant role in American politics. The public’s distrust of traditional institutions—together with the advent of new technologies—has opened the door to new ways for voters to get their election information. Radio talk shows to the Internet and twenty-four-hour cable news channels offer a growing assortment of election information resources.
Over the last decade, social media sites, blogs, viral marketing, e-mail outreach and other vehicles for online information sharing have virtually changed the definition of “media” by democratizing the process and allowing everyday citizens to shape the making of the news. Increasingly, candidates, supporters, voters and the media from all over the world are able to respond instantaneously and cheaply to events as they happen.
Despite the burgeoning competition, the traditional media are still enormously important. Newspapers and network television still reach the largest audiences in the United States. A modern presidential campaign is as much a battle for favorable coverage in the mainstream news media as it is a battle for votes.
Some believe the major newspapers and the network news programs can virtually create a presidential frontrunner by giving a candidate valuable exposure or simply by identifying the candidacy as the one to beat. Most news outlets give the greatest coverage to candidates who have the most money (their own money plus campaign contributions), as well as the most favorable ratings in public opinion polls.
While acceptance by the mainstream media as a “major candidate” is a crucial asset, a candidate can attract media attention and buzz by performing unexpectedly well. The unexpected rise of a little-known candidate, with innovative tactics and appeal, attracts ratings and readers.
There are plenty of well-known ways to draw favorable media attention: Stage events with “good visuals” for the television cameras and news photographers, such as large crowds enthusiastically waving banners and American flags.
A dramatic backdrop that highlights some of the issues the candidate is talking about—a pristine lake if the topic is the environment, or a factory if the candidate is addressing economic issues, or a family living room or a local coffee shop to convey the message that this is someone who cares about real people.
Who’s Sponsoring That Ad?
As the presidential campaign season gets under way, television, radio and digital/online ads will start appearing out of nowhere. Make sure to listen or watch until the end of the ad for the sponsor—and if it’s not a candidate’s campaign, take the whole thing with a grain of salt.
If a radio or TV ad is paid for by a candidate’s organization, it is required to have “My name is X and I approved this ad” (or something similar). That rule, passed as part of BCRA in 2002, is intended to make candidates and their campaigns more accountable for what their advertising says.
Recognize the pluses and the minuses of the information you receive from all the different types of media. If you don’t feel you’re getting enough information about the candidates and their positions on the issues from the mainstream press, check out some of the alternatives—for example, by searching online for more detailed breakdowns of where the candidates stand.
Don’t be fooled by ads from other sources. If a radio or TV ad is paid for by a candidate’s organization, it is required to include this statement, “My name is X and I approved this ad” (or something similar).