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Newspaper Election Coverage Focus on 'Horse Race,' Not Policy

MU Professor says public gets reporters' interpretations rather than candidate statements

Feb. 25, 2008

Story Contact:  Bryan E. Jones, (573)882-9144,

COLUMBIA, Mo. –  After analyzing the contents of more than 800 stories published in USA Today about the presidential primary campaign, University of Missouri Communication Professor William Benoit and doctoral candidate Mark Glantz found the stories focused heavily on the "horse race" (polls, predictions, election outcomes, campaign strategy and related subjects) and much less on candidates’ character and policy positions.

Benoit, an expert on political communication at MU’s College of Arts and Science, reported 56 percent of statements in the newspaper articles were about the election "game." Statements about the candidates’ character were less common (29 percent), and statements about the policy positions of the candidates were not very frequent (15 percent). 

Benoit’s study reveals this allocation of comments contrasts sharply with the messages from the candidates themselves, which – with the exception of candidate pages on Facebook and MySpace – were mostly about policy. Data collected from announcement speeches (63 percent policy, 37 percent character); television spots (59 percent policy, 41 percent character); debates (70 percent policy, 30 percent character); candidate web pages (81 percent policy, 19 percent character) and candidate Facebook/Myspace pages (42 percent policy, 58 percent character) support Benoit’s conclusions.

"Clearly, the news stories analyzed for this study focus on the horse race and, after that, candidate character more than policy," Benoit said. "This is the opposite emphasis from most candidate messages."

Perhaps most revealing is Benoit’s finding that many newspaper reporters are not sourcing the statements in their stories. According to the study, reporters used candidates as sources for only 18 percent of statements, candidate supporters for 5 percent of statements and other are used for 10 percent of the statements.

"Most commonly, statements in these stories are not sourced, or made by the reporters themselves," Benoit said. "Two-thirds of statements neither quote nor paraphrase any source.  Newspaper coverage from earlier campaigns confirms most statements about the election are unsourced. We are more likely to hear the reporters’ interpretations of the campaign than the candidates’ own statements."

Benoit has been a MU faculty member since 1984. He is the second-most published scholar of all time in significant communication research journals. Benoit is the author of several books on political campaigns, including Communication in Political Campaigns (2007).

Other information about political campaigns can be found on the website associated with this project: