Local papers little help in casting an informed vote
A well-informed electorate is perhaps the most essential ingredient for a functioning democratic system. Since the House of Representatives is intended to be the United States’ most democratic federal institution, citizens particularly need thorough coverage from local media outlets of their potential representatives to make an informed decision about who will best serve their interests.
It’s unfortunate, then, that quality news on congressional elections is so hard to come by. Dan Shadoan wrote a piece for Extra! (1–2/95) demonstrating that leading papers based in three major cities—the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times—failed to provide substantial coverage of the congressional elections in their areas of circulation. He found that the media typically report only on a handful of races deemed most worthy of attention—usually for largely superficial reasons.
In the year leading up to the 1994 congressional races, the New York Times only ran 27 articles on the 20 New York districts surveyed (an average of 1.4 for each district), while the L.A. Times ran 49 articles on its 23 districts (averaging 2.1 apiece) and the Chicago Tribune ran 97 articles on its 13 (an average of 7.5). Shadoan observed that the little coverage that did exist was disproportionately allocated to the closest and “flashiest” races.
To see if smaller papers do a better job, Extra! conducted a similar study of coverage of recent local congressional races by the St. Petersburg Times (circulation 299,000—Audit Bureau of Circulations, 3/31/12), Portland Oregonian (248,000), Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (189,000), Burlington (Vt.) Free Press (31,000) and Madison, Wisc., Capital Times (which became Web-only on April 26, 2008; previous circulation was 19,000).
The new study counted articles devoted to 2008 and 2010 congressional races in the districts representing the papers’ central city and surrounding suburban areas. The period studied ran from January 1 to Election Day in early November for each election year. Articles were included in the study if they had a clear focus on the specific district’s race.
Shadoan found that in the 1994 elections, the three newspapers combined ran an average of 3.1 articles on each congressional race studied. The five papers surveyed in the current study ran an average of 2.6 articles on each race in the 2008 election. In the 2010 election, the five smaller papers did somewhat better, with 3.3 articles per race. This improvement is largely due to the Burlington Free Press’s extensive coverage of Vermont’s at-large race, which was the focus of 23 articles. The other four papers averaged 2.6 stories per race in 2010.
In the 2008 congressional elections, the St. Petersburg Times devoted 14 separate articles to the nine congressional districts surveyed (an average of 1.5 for each district). In the 2010 elections, the paper ran 19 separate articles for the nine districts (an average of 2.1).
In the Portland metropolitan area, the Oregonian ran 23 separate articles on the four districts surveyed (an average of 5.8). In 2010, there was a slight drop, with 19 separate articles on the four districts (an average of 4.7).
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette devoted 15 articles to the seven Pennsylvania districts surveyed (an average of 2.1 for each district). For the 2010 elections, the Post-Gazette increased its coverage to 26 articles (an average of 3.7).
In the six congressional districts surveyed for Madison’s Capital Times, the publication devoted a total of six articles to the races, averaging one per district. In 2010, the only local race covered by the Capital Times was the 2nd District, which had only two pieces, for an average of 0.3.
The Burlington Free Press, with only Vermont’s one “at-large” congressional district to cover, published 12 articles on the 2008 congressional race. In 2010, by contrast, it ran 23 articles on the race, making the Free Press—with by far the smallest circulation of the print publications studied—the best paper analyzed in terms of coverage per district for the 2010 elections, and second only to the Post-Gazette in total articles published on local congressional races.
As in the 1995 study, there were patterns as to how the little coverage that existed was distributed. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s most-covered races for the 2008 elections, for example, were the 4th and 12th Districts, for two reasons: The races appeared to be “close,” and one of them was marked by controversy when Rep. John Murtha of the 12th District remarked publicly that many of his constituents were “racist.”
For both the 2008 and 2010 elections, three races had no articles devoted to them, but were sometimes mentioned in “round up” pieces that reported on multiple races. Pennsylvania’s 14th District received almost no attention in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, even though it contains Pittsburgh’s main urban center. This is most likely because there were no serious expectations that Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle would lose to either of his opponents: Green Party challenger Titus North in 2008, or Republican Melissa Haluszczak in 2010. Third-party candidates like North, and major-party challengers who are viewed as highly unlikely to win due to lack of popularity or campaign funding, are often marginalized in media coverage of local elections—thus cementing their disadvantage.
In 2008, Wisconsin’s 1st and 2nd districts received the only attention of the six races in the Capital Times’ coverage area, the 1st having been repeatedly deemed a competitive race between Republican Paul Ryan and his Democratic challenger Marge Krupp. As in the Pennsylvania’s 14th District, the third-party candidate (Libertarian Joseph Kexel) wasn’t mentioned in a single article.
In 2010, the single race covered by the internet-only Capital Times was the 2nd District contest between Democratic incumbent Tammy Baldwin and Republican challenger Chad Lee. Only two articles were devoted to this district; the rest received no substantial attention whatsoever—including the 1st District, where constituents received no help from their main local outlet in making the decision whether to return Ryan, now a prominent player in the national economic debate (Extra!, 6/11), to Washington. With the exception of its 3rd District, most of the congressional races in Wisconsin that year were won by very large margins, and there were no juicy scandals reported.
The St. Petersburg Times devoted nine articles in 2008 to Florida’s 5th District (the paper’s most reported-on race); many focused on Republican incumbent Ginny Brown-Waite’s husband’s battle with cancer, while several emphasized her controversial comments regarding Puerto Ricans as “foreign citizens.” There was very little discussion of actual policy issues on which Brown-Waite and her opponent differed. Of the nine 2008 races in the paper’s local area, seven weren’t mentioned in a single article.
For the 2010 elections, five districts were not reported on at all; each race ended up with a large victory margin. (In the case of the 6th District, there was no opponent.) The only reports on the 13th District concerned allegations that Republican challenger Vern Buchanan had received illegal campaign contributions.
The Oregonian did a slightly better job of covering its districts, but still heavily favored one over the others. For the 2008 elections, only one of the four districts received no attention, although the coverage was largely concentrated in the 5th District, described as “the only truly competitive contest among Oregon’s five house seats” (Oregonian, 10/14/08). Several pieces also addressed Republican challenger Mike Erickson’s controversial trip to Cuba. In the 4th District, unopposed Democratic incumbent Peter Defazio was the subject of seven articles.
In 2010, the paper devoted 11 of 19 articles to the 4th District race between Defazio and Republican Art Robinson, a close contest that one article (10/28/10) described as the “biggest head-scratcher” in Oregon’s 2010 congressional races; the 3rd and 5th districts were not reported on at all.
In Vermont’s 2008 elections, Peter Welch’s campaign was the subject of 12 articles in the Burlington Free Press. He faced no Republican challenger, but had five minor-party or independent opponents. As was also the case in Pennsylvania’s and Wisconsin’s congressional races, the third-party candidates received little to no attention in the local newspapers. Unsurprisingly, Welch emerged victorious in a landslide.
For the 2010 elections, many Free Press articles emphasized Republican challenger Paul Beaudry’s support for the Tea Party and neoconservative policies. In a state with a progressive reputation, the articles conveyed a clear sense that Beaudry didn’t stand a chance; Welch won with 64 percent of the vote.
The trends Shadoan observed in the quality and quantity of congressional election reporting in big-city papers in 1994 are little different in smaller-market papers some 15 years later. Races that were marked by controversy or were considered “tight” still received the most attention in local newspapers; third-party candidates and disadvantaged challengers continued to be largely ignored.
The Gannett-owned Burlington Free Press stood out as a paper that devoted numerous articles to the one race in its circulation area in both election years, despite an expectation that the district’s incumbent was in little danger of losing his seat. It’s true that serving a region with only one congressional district makes it easier for a paper to devote resources to the race, but if the Free Press had applied the standards used by most papers in the study, it might not have covered Vermont’s congressional election at all.
The assumption that, scandals aside, only competitive elections deserve coverage ignores the role of elections in fostering democratic discourse. They provide an opportunity for citizens to raise and debate issues, and to learn about their representatives’ positions—and for representatives to learn where their constituents stand. And if a challenger seems unlikely to overcome an incumbent’s advantages, surely they will have even less of a chance if they get little or no attention from the outlets where voters get their news.
It remains the case that if you want to cast an informed vote for Congress, local daily newspapers will likely not be much help.