Who Controls the News? Campaigns as Newsmakers

These days, the news is on all the time, anytime and available for consumption in every medium. We wake up to talk shows in the morning, listen to pundits argue on the radio, read editorials and react via social media. This “omniscient” media is responsible for what we have come to know as the 24-hour news cycle, a continuous stream of information that exists amongst all media, but is perhaps illustrated best by cable news networks.

Our political process plays out on this stage set by media convergence, and at no time is this more evident than the pinnacle of the American democratic process: the presidential election. The perpetually “on” nature of the new media has created a continuous race amongst the news producers, specifically cable news networks, where they are always in competition to be the first with the latest story.

The same holds true in the case of election coverage. Competition between media outlets is so intense that it has been blamed for indirect effects on voters over the years. This raises the question: are traditional media outlets still newsmakers?

As political campaigns have become more efficient at organizing and fundraising, they are starting to look more and more like media organizations, with their own media production and broadcast capabilities enabled by the Internet. This brings us to a second question: who is in control of the news, anyway?

Effects from the 24-hour news cycle, increased competition from campaigns as media organizations and an increasingly partisan press could potentially be having negative repercussions on election coverage and news making. Media outlets are not providing consumers with the contextual information necessary to digest and dissect the election in a meaningful way. This leaves room for others to fill the information gap.

With campaign financing reaching astronomical levels, campaigns are now organizing as media organizations of their own. The Democratic National Committee, which formed the Obama For America leg of President Obama’s 2012 campaign, houses a media production studio in its headquarters. There, the staff produced radio spots, commercials for broadcast and videos for online distribution throughout the election. Continued revenue losses for news outlets cannot cover the atmospheric costs that come with putting journalists on campaign buses. In an article with American Journalism Review, Politico editor-in-chief John Harris said it would have cost his news outlet “about $10,000 a day to put reporters on the four major presidential and vice presidential campaigns during the general election”.

Media outlets are pulling journalists and their support off the campaign trail and out of voters’ communities. In turn, campaigns’ production capabilities on the ground, which can now rival those of media organizations, are filling the void. Campaigns are able to shoot, produce and distribute packaged media in just a few short hours. In the case of elections results reporting, campaigns are able to effectively communicate their own polls, predictions and interpretations of incoming results with their constituencies in near real-time.

Though media organizations have taken a step back from on-the-ground election coverage, market demand spawned by the 24-hour news cycle has forced them to find other means of filling their broadcasts with content. The “horse race” has become a common source for content with media organizations citing poll data that places a candidate ahead of another candidate in the sense of a continuous race. For the duration of the 2012 election season, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer featured a daily update of poll numbers during his nightly program that illustrated candidates’ position in the “race” at that point. Voters are constantly updated in this way by these traditional news outlets, and yet are missing out on the information and issues that matter most.

As broadcast news organizations have become increasingly partisan, the line between the press and campaigns continues to become blurred. Election coverage has become more subjective than objective with numbers being assigned whatever meaning the media organizations and campaigns would have them represent. On election night, voters find themselves engaging with an overwhelming excess of information from campaigns and media organizations with little meaningful context with which to interpret it. All these developments raise the question: who is making the news?

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Deron Hogans is a graduate student in the Communication, Culture and Technology program at Georgetown University, studying the relationship between media and politics. He is also a strategic communications professional with interests in culture and brand management. Connect with him via Twitter, @DeronHogansJr.