Americans get their election campaign news from broadcast news programs, television comedy shows, websites and many other sources besides their local daily newspaper.
“You still look at your morning paper,” said Larry Parnell, a professor at George Washington University in Washington, “but for thoughtful analysis, not for breaking news. You’ve already gotten that on your smart phone.”
Parnell may be exaggerating a little (one study says 27 percent of Americans get news from their mobile phones or other mobile devices). But his comment points to changes in communications media and the role they play in U.S. politics.
America’s founders established freedom of the press as a basic right when they adopted the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
At their best, in recent decades the news media have represented the public interest in the political system, informing citizens about government and politics and exposing wrongdoing.
Changes over Decades
But in America’s early years, newspapers were often openly, even savagely partisan. It was in the 19th century that the ideal of balanced, objective reporting gradually took hold. Some newspapers published the texts of hours-long campaign speeches of presidential candidates such as Abraham Lincoln — and people eagerly read them.
The birth of radio broadcasts in the 1920s gave audiences more immediate news of politics. The advent of television after World War II allowed Americans to watch political developments unfold from the comfort of their living rooms.
By 1952, the once-every-four-years national conventions, where the Democratic and Republican political parties choose their presidential candidates, were broadcast nationwide by the handful of major television networks.
For decades now, established major print and broadcast news media have assigned some of their most talented reporters and cameramen to tag along with major presidential candidates during more than a year of campaigning.
Politicians court the media, and almost every campaign event is chosen to get maximum media coverage. But citizen bloggers or videographers with hand-held cameras also can follow the candidates, catch them off guard and produce reports that get widely read or viewed.
Online and On Air
Citizens face an explosion of news sources: 24-hour television news networks, local broadcast news operations, talk shows on television and radio, news websites and citizen journalists’ blogs.
News sites that exist only or mostly online, such as the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast and Politico, attract millions of readers with original reporting. Huffington Post has a platform called OffTheBus just for citizen journalists filing reports of local stories about the 2012 elections.
Retreating to the ways of the early republic, some journalists now make no pretense of aiming for objective reporting. Broadcast news organizations and online news sites that pointedly slant their coverage to a more conservative viewpoint, such as Fox News, or a more liberal viewpoint, such as MSNBC, have taken audience share away from more traditional competitors.
To provide quick insights and some analysis, a few major newspapers have added blogs, such as The Caucus in the New York Times and The Fix in the Washington Post. But former newspaper reporter Jodi Enda, writing in American Journalism Review, said her colleagues are torn by the need to file bits of information so quickly and so often to satisfy the demands of social and electronic media.
“They bemoan the loss of time to engage in in-depth reporting,” Enda said, “to go beyond the story of the day to unearth the insightful gems that really tell us something instructive, something fundamentally important, about the men and women who would be president.”
News as Entertainment
Some voters, especially younger ones, now get their political news mostly from daily televised satire programs such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert. Others learn about candidates from the jokes of late-night television talk show hosts such as Jay Leno and David Letterman.
So candidates are going where the voters are. During his 1992 campaign for president, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton famously appeared on the late-night Arsenio Hall Show playing the song “Heartbreak Hotel” on saxophone. Politicians have been appearing as guests on talk shows ever since, a calculated part of their campaigns.
Technology has changed the system where only a few sources provided news. Howard Fineman, editorial director at the Huffington Post, wrote that major news organization reporters had become insulated when they simply hopped on and off a candidate’s campaign bus or airplane to cover a blur of scheduled events.
They missed a lot of the real story that way, he advised prospective citizen journalists. “Arguably,” Fineman said, “no one can see America better than the people who never get on the vehicle in the first place — in other words, all of you.”