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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 17:25 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 17:25 | SYDNEY

News cycles: The shifting narratives of presidential campaigns

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12 October 2012 10:11

Covering a presidential campaign is at once the most thrilling and mind-numbing of journalistic experiences. Reporters are subjected to the same stump speech so often, many are able within a few weeks not only to ventriloquise its wording but also to identify the lines at which the candidate's wife will nod in empathetic agreement. Still, few would surrender their front row seat on the most entertaining electoral show on earth: a carnival that moves from state to battleground state, from one flag-bedecked high school gym to the next.

Reporters serve as fact-checkers, gaffe-spotters, rapid response pundits and the authors of narratives that come to shape and define the contest. They have become participants as well as spectators: setting expectations, handicapping the race and adjudicating, with the help of polling, who is up and who is down. Importantly, the storylines they produce often accord with the type of race they ideally wish to cover.

During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, for example, the press favoured Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, according to a study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, partly because the election of the first black president was deemed a better story than the election of the first female. In 2000, Al Gore received poor coverage, I thought at the time, because journalists had decided that a Bush restoration was more compelling than a continuation of the Clinton era without its charismatic leading man. In an electoral reworking of the old 'if it bleeds, it leads' principle, candidates are often assessed on the basis of their news value – even, to put it another way, their journalistic entertainment value.

Journalists also like shifting storylines. Asked before the presidential debate what Mitt Romney had going for him, my first thought was the boredom of the campaign press pack. They wanted a tighter race and were itching to write the comeback narrative. President Obama, with his languid performance, more than obliged.

The amped-up tone of much of the post-debate commentary, however, revealed the lurching nature of modern-day coverage. In the space of a few days, the 'Obama cruising to victory' narrative was replaced by 'Obama sleepwalking to defeat'. 'Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion,' wrote Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast. '[O]n the core issues of the economy and the deficit, Romney is now kicking the president's ass.' The piece was entitled Did Obama Just Thow The Entire Election Away? The headline for a blog post only a few days before the debate was: Is Romney The Weakest Candidate In Modern History?

In this age of concertinaed news cycles, journalists also favour plenty of plot developments. It helps explain the boom and bust Republican primary season, where Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain rose quickly to the top and then fell away just as quickly. True, these candidates were ultimately eliminated by voters – they do still get the decisive say – but journalists also played a role in building them up and knocking them down.

So as the race reaches its climax, I am reminded of two pieces of advice a colleague was kind enough to pass along when beginning a posting in South Asia. The first was to protect my health: never drink from a bottle labelled Strong Indian Beer. The second was to protect my professional reputation: never try to predict the outcome of an Indian election. It's a rule worth applying universally, as the Romney fightback has reminded us again. 

Photo by Flickr user US Mission Geneva.

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