April 21, 2008

Media Make Mistakes During Presidential Campaign

The Pennsylvania primary on April 22 is the next step in a presidential campaign season that's been tough on the candidates — but even tougher on political writers and broadcast journalists.

George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson of ABC News were the latest to be criticized for the way they moderated the April 16 presidential debate between Democratic candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

But problems with media coverage of the campaign go back a year ago. Last summer, the press all but declared Clinton the Democratic nominee, while at the same time writing off John McCain's candidacy.

"The smart money is on Hillary Clinton to win the White House in 2008," declared The Economist last May. Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report wrote last summer in the National Journal that "For all intents and purposes, McCain's campaign is over."

Of course, Clinton lost her front-runner status following the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, while McCain won the New Hampshire primary and secured the Republican nomination in March.

The mistakes continued following Obama's victory in the Iowa caucus. "Panic," screamed a headline in the New York Post on the day before the New Hampshire primary. The Boston Herald's front page the next day read, "She's So Yesterday."

Clinton wound up winning that primary and today remains in a competitive race with Obama.

John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, co-founders of the newspaper and Web site Politico, put it best in a Jan. 9 column: "If journalists were candidates, there would be insurmountable pressure for us to leave the race."

So why has the media gotten it wrong this year?

Media analysts point to various reasons, but many are in agreement that the lure of the "horse race" sometimes leads reporters to rely on polling data that may not be accurate or is lacking in depth. In addition, an "echo chamber" effect can sometimes develop among reporters who travel together, creating campaign narratives that can sometimes be out of touch with reality. Add to that the competitive 24-hour news cycle in which media outlets want to be first with results, and you've got a recipe for miscues.

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