What are Campaigns For?


We seem to love news stories built around the game of politics.

The presidential election season now takes the space of nearly three NFL seasons, where the endless journalistic fascination on the minutia of strategy far exceeds what any sane person wants to hear.  Imagine seeing the musical Cats for six hundred performances, and we begin to get a sense of the fatigue factor we have built into our presidential politics.

The reasons for this endless campaign cycle are varied, systemic and ultimately not very interesting.  Suffice it is say that no one is really in charge.  And so a crazy quilt of organizational needs and commercial opportunities play out in repetitive loops spread over many months.  Think of the chaotic rules the parties now use to set up primaries and caucuses.  Most of the population centers in the United States must wait for smaller states like Iowa and New Hampshire to weigh in.

Analysis of our campaign journalism reveals that most of what political journalists give us is what communication researchers call “process reporting.”

There is one overriding  feature of these endless campaigns that is especially problematic.  It’s connected to how they are covered by most of the news media. Analysis of our campaign journalism reveals that the lion’s share of the reporting that political journalists give us is what communication researchers Kathleen Jamieson and Joe Cappella call “process reporting.”[1]  Process stories tell us very little about what the candidates will do should they get the opportunity to govern; they tell us much more about what the campaigns are planning as they do battle with their opponents.

Jamieson and Cappella’s research examined print and broadcast coverage, with the goal of coding stories as either focusing mostly on substantive issues or on how various sides are playing the “game” of politics.  Substantive coverage includes stories on what a candidate thinks: how he or she would govern and lead, and what policies they would propose.  By contrast, the “process” or “strategy” frame of reference is a label given to individual reports focused primarily on political polling, and also what individual candidates and their campaigns are strategizing to win over voters.

Why is a candidate spending so much time in a particular “swing” state?  Why did they use this location and this particular audience as a place to focus on pay differentials between men and women?  Whose decision was it to keep the candidate away from interviewers at The Washington Post?  The strategic questions are endless and often trivial.  But as with the comments of “color” commentators broadcasting professional sports, we seem to have an endless reservoir of curiosity about  the backstories of individual players.  News sites like Politico or television programs like With All Due Respect (Bloomberg/MSNBC) would be nowhere without the “inside baseball” commentary that turns their  journalists into connoisseurs of campaign mechanics.  We love reports built around public opinion poll results, and the play-by-play on decisions on raising money, picking staffers, and the geographic deployment of the candidate.  We expect and get far less analysis of major challenges the country and the newly elected leader will face in the next four years.  And that’s a problem.

With this focus on process there is less journalistic curiosity about political substance.  Journalists simply don’t have time to follow a campaign around the nation while at the same time getting up to speed on the diplomatic possibilities for making headway to end the Syrian civil war, or for helping the European Union ease its political crisis. The iconic journalist I.F. Stone noted years ago that journalists would do better to stay at home and write stories based on the public record: the policy positions of governments or the position papers of candidates who want to run them.

It may be considered “old school” to expect that campaigns will result in a national dialogue about the great issues facing the nation.  And yet when we are consumed with the sideshows of the campaigns, we are also sacrificing the opportunity to clear away the brush to find safe passage through the thorny landscape that lies ahead.


[1] Kathleen Jamieson and Joseph Cappella, Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) , 33-34.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu