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Controlling the MessageNew Media in American Political Campaigns$

Victoria A. "Farrar-Myers and Justin S. Vaughn

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9781479886357

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479886357.001.0001

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Traditional Media, Social Media, and Different Presidential Campaign Messages

Traditional Media, Social Media, and Different Presidential Campaign Messages

Chapter:
(p.136) 7 Traditional Media, Social Media, and Different Presidential Campaign Messages
Source:
Controlling the Message
Author(s):

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha

Publisher:
NYU Press
DOI:10.18574/nyu/9781479886357.003.0007

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the differences between traditional and social media coverage of the 2012 presidential election across a range of dimensions, including volume and tone. Using data provided by the Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, it compares the impact of social media and traditional news reporting on the 2012 presidential campaign. After discussing the content and effect of Internet-based media in presidential election campaigns, the chapter analyzes the social and traditional media coverage of the campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It shows that there are important differences in how traditional and social media affect campaign messages, but that there is not much variation in terms of tone and volume. It also notes that social media are generally more negative than their more traditional counterparts, even as their coverage patterns are essentially the same.

Keywords:   traditional media, social media, presidential election, news reporting, election campaigns, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, campaign messages

There is a common perception among pundits, politicians, and scholars of presidential campaigns and American politics that new media have changed the nature of electoral politics.1 Like the advent of television before it, new media—but especially Internet blogs, online news websites, and social media—appear to have altered the essence of the presidential campaign. Whereas previous advances in media ushered in an era of candidate-centered politics and greater reliance on independent fundraising to advertise on television, more online media have increased the range of voters’ sources of information and have shaped campaigns in distinct ways. The omnipresence of Twitter on postdebate news coverage reinforces the perception. Indeed, if we were to summarize the 2012 presidential election, it would likely reference Big Bird, binders, horses, bayonets, and other debate comments that were accentuated through social media.

Social media traffic in the 2012 presidential election campaign appears to have driven campaign messages and, in turn, predicted its outcome easily. Just as Obama won reelection handily in the Electoral College (332 to 206), a snapshot of the social media campaign reveals that Obama also trounced Romney in social media attention. The president enjoyed more Facebook “likes” than Romney (27.5 million to 2.9 million), Twitter followers (18 million to 787,080), and YouTube subscribers (207,434 to 12,570) (Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism [PEJ] 2012b). Even when the Republican primary debates dominated traditional news coverage, the president exceeded Romney’s Twitter presence by nearly 15 times: over 15 million assertions on Twitter for Barack Obama to just over 1.5 million for Mitt Romney (PEJ 2011c). Given that social endorsement is more important than partisanship in news story selection on social media (Messing and Westwood, forthcoming), the impact of Obama’s presence on social media may have also influenced Romney supporters.

That changes in media communications technology have affected presidential elections is not unique to 2012. Media advances have often signaled changes to presidential campaigns, with perhaps the most famous of these being the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, held on September 26, 1960. Public perception of this debate differed starkly by one’s exposure to television or radio. Viewers of television, which emphasizes style (p.137) over substance and image over experience, proclaimed a young and inexperienced (but television-friendly) Kennedy the debate winner (Druckman 2003). Although radio listeners heard Nixon’s command of foreign and domestic policy and proclaimed him the winner, television viewers saw a sweaty, pasty, and shifty-eyed sitting vice president and determined that he had lost (Vancil and Pendell 1987). Therefore, television may have affected the outcome of one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history (Hellweg, Pfau, and Brydon 1992).

Although we have yet to witness as defining an event with the Internet or social media, there is sufficient anecdotal evidence that their advent has ushered in a new era of campaign messages and politics, one that might rely more on user-driven messages and that may therefore be more democratic. Independently created political videos, whether depicting a fan (Obama Girl) or a candidate himself (George Allen, 2008 Senate campaign), have shaped traditional news conversations (see Hendricks and Denton 2010). Twitter feeds and Facebook posts were part of traditional news analysis and fueled much of the campaign conversation in 2012. Today, political candidates avoid outreach through the Internet and social networking sites at their peril (Haynes and Pitts 2009). Social media have changed the distribution of campaign information, there is no doubt. Whether they have substantially altered who controls the campaign message—and the campaign itself—is less clear.

This chapter focuses on answering the following question: how did traditional and social media cover the 2012 presidential election campaign? To answer this question, I compare both traditional and social media across several dimensions, including volume and tone, using data provided by the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). I report that while there are important differences in how these media affect campaign messaging, much of the tone and volume of social media coverage matches traditional news coverage. If anything, social media tend to be more negative than traditional news sources. But their impact on the 2012 presidential campaign may not have been significantly different in comparison with new media featured in previous elections. Instead, their importance may lie in how they facilitate the dissemination of messages deemed interesting to the wired electorate (such as Big Bird), not necessarily the journalists who traditionally report on campaign events.

Internet-BasedMedia in American Campaigns

What do we know about the content and effect of Internet-based media in presidential election campaigns? To be blunt, we know very little, especially in comparison with the much-larger literature on traditional media effects (see Patterson 1993) and the impact of alternative sources of televised politics, such as late-night television (Baum 2005; Parkin 2010) or soft news programs (Baum 2003) on public opinion. Because there are significant data limitations (p.138) and other difficulties associated with collecting social media data, research has not yet examined social media at length but has rather investigated other forms of Internet-based political communication, such as online news sites. Beyond revealing important connections between these media and American politics, much of this literature reflects on whether new media developments have been good for American democracy and why.

The literature paints a mixed picture of the Internet’s effects on learning and participation, despite its ubiquity and increasing prevalence among consumers of news (PEJ 2012c). On the one hand, exposure to online news increases knowledge in both a campaign (Kenski and Stroud 2006) and a noncampaign context (Kwak, Poor, and Skoric 2006). More so, exposure to online news has had a positive impact on political interest (Boulianne 2011) and voter turnout, especially among people with low levels of political interest (Kruikemeier et al., forthcoming). It also increased participation and political efficacy among college students during the 2008 presidential election (Kushin and Yamamoto 2010). Research is clear, furthermore, that citizens are more likely to seek out online news during a high-profile political event such as a presidential primary (Tewksbury 2006; see Boczkowski, Mitchelstein, and Walter 2012). On the other hand, Shelley Boulianne’s (2009) meta-analysis reveals that Internet use has had a marginal impact on political involvement, such as voting, even though the two are positively correlated.2 Indeed, exposure to online news leads to less recall of political information than does reading a print newspaper (Eveland, Seo, and Marton 2002; Tewksbury and Althaus 2000), although this may be a function of the substantive content provided by different media (D’Haenens, Jankowski, and Heulvelman 2004).

Indeed, the content of information may have the most pronounced impact on voters’ political engagement. Conservative media, including Fox News Channel (and presumably its online counterpart), help conservative viewers make sense of complex issues by offering a coherent, ideological presentation of political news. This, in turn, increases those viewers’ likelihood of voting (Jamieson and Cappella 2008).3 On the other hand, however, conservative media’s preference for ridicule over reason contributes to the polarization of the electorate (see Morris 2005), which appears to undermine sensible deliberation on issues of national concern. That Internet users select one-sided information sources (Gainous and Wagner 2011, chap. 6) that advocate one perspective at the exclusion of another further segments the American electorate as the Internet grows as the primary source of news for Americans.

A burgeoning literature is only beginning to explore the impact of social media on political learning and engagement (see Edgerly et al. 2013 for some of this research). The conventional wisdom about social media, much as it was speculated about cable television and online news before them, is that they are good for democracy by engaging voters and providing them an efficient vehicle (p.139) through which to express their political preferences (Haynes and Pitts 2009, 53). Audrey Haynes and Brian Pitts (2009) examined websites that track Internet usage and found the following. First, website traffic appears to fluctuate with news coverage of a candidates’ position in the horse race. Second, blog entries on candidate websites mirror volume of traditional news stories (Haynes and Pitts 2009, 56). As a representative example, Hillary Clinton enjoyed roughly 38% of all candidates’ blog entries and 35% of all traditional news stories between November 26 and December 26, 2007. Third, a candidates’ number of MySpace friends and YouTube views approximated the candidates’ placement in the polls and, likely therefore, their traditional news coverage.

Other studies examine the impact of social media on voting or political learning, with mixed results. Matthew Kushin and Masahiro Yamamoto (2010) found that although access to Internet news sites and government webpages produced higher levels of participation and political efficacy among college students during the 2008 presidential election, these benefits did not result from increased exposure to Facebook. Nevertheless, Brian Houston et al. (2013) tracked Twitter usage during the first 2012 presidential debate and found that those who tweeted most frequently during the debate also learned more about the debate.

Beyond these investigations are questions about the impact of new media on informational equality and democracy. Whereas the Internet and social media allow individuals the opportunity to express what their political campaign messages would be, these virtual conversations appear to appeal mostly to those who are already interested in politics. Although Markus Prior (2007) stops short of analyzing social media, he notes that advances in television and print media technologies have reduced the chances that one might learn accidentally about politics. Newer media, by themselves, do not motivate otherwise-uninterested voters to participate in elections. Rather, the byproduct of postbroadcast media is informational inequality or greater information disparities between those who consume news and those who are not interested in doing so.

All in all, the literature on Internet and social media produces a range of preliminary findings, with the largest effects occurring for those media formats that most closely resemble traditional media technology. Just as the Internet has mixed effects on voter involvement and learning, its impact on voters is greatest for online news sites, many of which parallel the content of their print or televised versions. Even though candidates undoubtedly use social media to reach voters who interact on these platforms, our initial understanding of social media and politics reveals that social media have had only a limited or at least mixed substantive impact on presidential elections and politics.

(p.140) Toward a Theory of New Media Content

Scholars of traditional media often explain the content of traditional news sources with a profit-seeker model (Dunaway 2008; Hamilton 2004). This is so because news organizations base what they can charge advertisers on the size of their audience. Traditional media need consumers and will decide what is newsworthy in part on the basis of what their audience wants to see or read. One might speculate that social media are run independent of a profit incentive, but Facebook increasingly targets users’ preferences with advertisements, perhaps more so since it became a publicly traded company. Twitter is also likely to follow suit (Chace 2013).

The potential distinction between the profit incentive of traditional and social media may be even less apparent when we consider what users of social media post online and where they receive their information. Certainly, a user of social media could post pictures of herself with a presidential candidate, report on what she heard at a political rally, or reflect on a personal conversation that she had with her family about the election. Yet much of what a user may post may be driven by traditional media and the events that she is tuned in to. Twitter posts during the 2012 presidential debates provide a vivid example of this, as viewers used Twitter to reflect on these highly predictable and traditional campaign events. The content of Twitter feeds may be driven by individuals’ opinions, but those opinions are just as likely to have been spurred by traditional broadcast or news coverage of those events.

Thus, I contend that traditional news media drive news coverage across all forms of media. If this assumption holds, then theories of traditional media should transcend traditional news and apply to all media in the postbroadcast age. Admittedly, there is very little empirical evidence of the causal relationships between traditional and Internet-based media to justify this assumption without controversy. Still, three recent studies begin to support it. First, Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha and Evan Lowe (2013) show a number of similarities between traditional and Internet-based news media, including that Associated Press wire reports make up a substantial percentage of news reports on both the Huffington Post and FoxNews.com. Second, Ben Sayre et al. (2010) illustrate that before the 2008 election during which Californians voted on Proposition 8, newspaper coverage led Internet blogs’ attention to same-sex marriage. Third, variation in Haynes and Pitts’s (2009) data shows that social media campaign coverage mirrors traditional news media coverage and does not provide independent or truly alternative coverage. Candidates with the most social media attention in 2008 were also those candidates who led in the polls or were actively campaigning at the time of the authors’ data collection.

In addition to the causal direction of news flow is the idea of complementarity. Traditional and nontraditional media are not competing news sources, (p.141) according to this argument, but rather work together and reinforce each other (Dutta-Bergman 2004). This argument leads to two suggestions. First, the content of traditional and postbroadcast news should be more similar than different. Second, we are not likely to see viewers leave traditional for new media en masse, which preserves traditional media’s dominance in news coverage of presidential election campaigns (PEJ 2012c). Scott Althaus and David Tewksbury (2000) support the idea that online news does not replace traditional news consumption, at least among college students, especially because college students’ primary means of using the Internet is for entertainment, not information.4

Given evidence that traditional news media drive Internet-based media, that the two media complement rather than compete with each other, and that social media have strong leanings toward making a profit, the profit incentive that dictates the tone and volume of traditional news stories will also affect the tone and volume of social media postings. Because I expect similarities between types of media, I hypothesize that both the volume and tone of all media coverage of the 2012 presidential election campaign should be comparable, such that both traditional and social media will offer voluminous and mostly negative campaign news coverage.

Audience interest also matters to the profit theory of news coverage. Simply, news outlets will report on those stories that their audiences want to read or view. Thus, users of different outlets should reflect these differences in their views about both candidates. That is, if one type of media is consumed primarily by supporters of one candidate, then that candidate will receive more coverage on it. This is most obviously true for the rise of partisan media on both Fox (which should favor Romney) and MSNBC (which should favor Obama). Moreover, users’ preference for one candidate means that they are also likely to be more critical of the other.

Our understanding of users of social media is less clear. Although the number of Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers mentioned in the introduction insinuates that Obama should have had a decided social media advantage in the 2012 election, there is little difference between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in their usage of social media. Liberal Democrats are more inclined to “like” something on Facebook, but more Republicans post political content than Democrats do, 39% to 34%. Research also produces mixed results concerning partisanship and the use of Twitter (Houston et al. 2013; McKinney, Houston, and Hawthorne 2014). All in all, party differences on social media usage for the 2012 presidential election cycle are negligible, with only 39% of Americans using social media during the election, besides (Pew Internet and American Life Project 2012).5 Therefore, it is not obvious that Obama benefited from a more favorable social media audience with more, and more positive, social media coverage.

Finally, news events should matter to both traditional and Internet-based news coverage. The presence and importance of events dictate traditional news (p.142) coverage, as news organizations will cover and report on typical developments, such as conventions, debates, and traditional media interviews. It is possible that social media, which is purportedly more independent and decentralized than traditional news sources are, could drive subsequent social media activity irrespective of events surrounding the contest. But consistent with my theory of continuity between traditional and postbroadcast media, both forms of media should similarly follow regular campaign events.6

Data

Our understanding of social media and their impact on American political campaigns is limited. One reason for this is the relative novelty of social media. Twitter, for example, became popular during the 2008 presidential election,7 limiting a thorough treatment of Twitter’s impact on presidential election campaigns to 2012. Another reason for our limited understanding of social media in American politics is the difficulty of data collection. Whereas studies of traditional news media involve collecting and coding data from a regularly scheduled television broadcast or daily newspaper, new media are highly decentralized and user driven, making collecting and comparing such information highly variable.

Recent advances in machine coding of text have enhanced the possibilities to analyze social media data systematically. Fortunately, the premier data-driven website that studies American politics and media—the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism—used such an advance to collect data on traditional and social media during the 2012 nomination and general election campaigns. Created by Gary King (Hopkins and King 2010), Crimson Hexagon collects data from a variety of sources to create the universe of data on some issue and by media type. For example, it pulls its universe of tweets from the “Twitter Firehose Data Feed,” a proprietary database of Twitter feeds not currently available to the public. It also samples thousands of blogs and stories from the traditional press, some of which are analyzed by human coders.8

Because the PEJ released its data at various time points throughout the campaign, it was not usually possible to compare media across the entire campaign. Instead, I describe the nature of campaign news coverage at specific time frames as identified by PEJ in its online reports. Although I also rely on some earlier data—including data from the Republican nomination season and other, more refined time points—the bulk of the data come from three primary time frames, selected by PEJ to capture most of the major campaign events of the 2012 presidential election: May 29–August 5, 2012; August 27–October 21, 2012; and October 29–November 5, 2012.9

(p.143) Findings

The data support each of the foregoing expectations that concern the tone of coverage, volume of coverage, and social media usage by candidate supporters. There are several expected differences but also many similarities between traditional and social media coverage of the 2012 presidential election campaign.

Volume of Coverage

The volume of coverage was similar across media and candidates during the 2012 presidential election campaign. Overall, President Obama enjoyed more coverage than did Governor Romney throughout much of the campaign, including a 69%–61% advantage in significant traditional news coverage between August 27 and October 21, 2012 (PEJ 2012f). Even during much of the 2011 Republican primary campaign season, President Obama received nine times more news coverage than any Republican did (PEJ 2011b). Still, the amount of mainstream news coverage fluctuated, as one would expect, with each candidate’s party convention. Just as Obama enjoyed more coverage during his party’s convention and Romney more during his,10 the volume of total campaign coverage trended upward after the first presidential debate (PEJ 2012f).

Obama outpaced not only Romney’s traditional news coverage but also his volume of attention on three social media outlets: Twitter, Facebook, and Internet blogs (PEJ 2012b). What is more, the ratio of coverage volume for mainstream media outlets roughly mirrored that on social media but still advantaged the president. Whereas Obama enjoyed approximately 1.36 times more coverage than Romney did on mainstream media sites, his advantage grew to 1.44 (on Twitter), 1.54 (on blogs), and 1.77 (on Facebook).

The last two weeks of the presidential election campaign further solidified Obama’s advantage in volume of coverage in comparison with Governor Romney. Yet there was little variation in Obama’s lead when comparing traditional and social media. Obama’s volume of coverage on mainstream media exceeded Romney’s at a ratio of 1.34 on Twitter and 1.29 on traditional news broadcasts. In absolute terms, Obama enjoyed 3.9 million to Romney’s 2.9 million tweets, just as he was a significant presence on 80% (to Romney’s 62%) of traditional news broadcasts11 (PEJ 2012f).

Tone of Coverage

The 2012 campaign was negative, as both candidates suffered nearly identical 2.5 times more negative than positive coverage of their character and career records. Compared with recent elections, 2012 was most similar to 2004, in which candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush received roughly the same proportion of (p.144) negative news coverage. In 2008 or 2000, conversely, one candidate (the Democrat Obama in 2008 and the Republican Bush in 2000) received noticeably more positive coverage than his opponent (PEJ 2012d). As with most prior elections, the pattern of negativity was a function of the schedule of particular campaign events and developments unique to the 2012 election.

From the end of the conventions until the last two weeks of the campaign, Romney’s traditional news coverage was more negative, at 38% to Obama’s 30% negative coverage (PEJ 2012f). The month of September was a particularly poor month for Romney. In the wake of the Democratic Party’s successful national convention, Romney sought to “reboot” his campaign and limit the damage of the “47%” video, both of which garnered a significant amount of negative coverage throughout the month of September: 54% negative for Romney to 24% negative traditional news coverage for Obama (PEJ 2012f). Romney recovered after a strong first debate performance, however, and the tone of his traditional news coverage improved to only 23% negative to Obama’s 37% negative between October 4 and 16, 2012 (PEJ 2012f). Nevertheless, horse-race coverage, which amounted to over 46% of all traditional news coverage during the last two weeks of the campaign, benefited Obama greatly, with only 16% negative horse-race coverage to Romney’s 29% negative horse-race coverage.12 The emphasis on horse-race coverage in the last weeks of the campaign is reflected in more positive coverage for Obama during that time.

Table 7.1 presents more specific tonal data by candidate and according to a variety of media. Aside from partisan cable news and talk radio, which predictably support one candidate over the other, both candidates experienced more negative than positive coverage across all media. Time 2 presents the best comparative data, and it shows that although Romney suffered more negative coverage than Obama did, almost all media covered both candidates more negatively than positively, a typical description of most presidential campaigns (Farnsworth and Lichter 2008).13

One additional similarity between the tone of traditional and social media is variation by events. Simply, the occurrence of political events drove both traditional news and social media tone in similar ways, albeit more dramatically on traditional news sources. During the candidates’ respective political conventions, for example, each received much less negative news coverage than his opponent, with the opposite being true when his party was not on the national stage (PEJ 2012f). This is typical of what we have come to expect concerning traditional news coverage of unified conventions, which also lead to a small bump to candidates’ position in the horse race (Holbrook 1994). Fluctuation in social media also tracked traditional coverage of the debates, most obviously on Twitter and the blogs. Surprisingly, Facebook posts trended less negative after the conventions and fluctuated less in response to the October debates (PEJ 2012a). (p.145)

Table 7.1. Tone of Campaign Coverage by Medium

Media

Time 1

Time 2

Time 3

Obama

Romney

Obama

Romney

Obama

Romney

Pos.

Neg.

Pos.

Neg.

Pos.

Neg.

Pos.

Neg.

Pos.

Neg.

Pos.

Neg.

Online news

24

76

31

69

25

33

14

44

Newspapers

35

65

34

66

12

18

19

16

Networks*

42

58

29

71

25

23

16

33

23

25

17

32

Fox

14

86

44

56

6

46

28

12

5

56

42

11

MSNBC

54

46

12

88

39

15

3

71

51

0

0

68

Conservative radio

7

93

62

38

Liberal radio

64

36

11

89

Twitter

25

45

16

58

27

41

32

45

Facebook

24

53

23

62

33

47

23

54

Blogs

19

44

18

27

28

42

24

40

Overall traditional

19

30

15

38

29

19

16

33

Source: Time 1, May 29–August 5, 2012; PEJ Report for August 23, 2012. Time 2, August 27–October 21, 2012, PEJ Report for November 2, 2012; Time 3, October 29–November 5, 2012, PEJ Report for November 19, 2012.

(*) Time 1 network estimates include morning and evening newscasts. Time 2 and 3 reflect only evening network coverage, with Time 3 being an approximation of PEJ’s numbers that it reports separately for the penultimate and last weeks of the campaign.

The primary difference between traditional and social media tone is that social media tended to be more negative than traditional news. For example, whereas traditional news peaked at 44% and 33% negative for Romney and Obama, respectively, each experienced considerably more negative coverage on social media during the same time frame, at 62% and 53% negative Facebook comments, for Romney and Obama, respectively. This implies that social media is not necessarily a boon to a candidate’s message, as some pundits, politicians, and scholars might speculate, and might insinuate that a candidate’s control of his or her campaign message is not enhanced but rather undermined through social media technology.

Although future research is needed to explore whether social media is generalizably more negative than traditional news is, social media’s greater negativity could be a function of the vitriol that users of social media use to express their opinions (but see Thorson, Vraga, and Kligler-Vilenchik 2014) in comparison with traditional news and traditional news media’s standards of journalism, which may temper more negative opinionating. Indeed, most social media posts are personal, which may be driven more heavily by predispositions than what is on the news.14 Just as these numbers suggest a lack of candidate control over (p.146) social media conversations, they also show that social media conversations are not simply a reflection of traditional news coverage. This independence of social media is evidence of greater voter control of the campaign conversation, which perhaps signals the dawn of a more democratic (or at least more decentralized) campaign dialogue.

Variation in Social Media Coverage by Candidate

Although President Obama appears to have enjoyed a greater following on social media, social media activity is evenly distributed by party identification (Pew Internet and American Life Project 2012). At least for the 2012 campaign, social media usage may not have played a dominant role in voter acquisition of campaign information online. The PEJ, for example, analyzed links provided on posts for each candidate (whether on Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook), and, for both, the candidate’s website was the primary information source provided (PEJ 2012b). In other words, social media appear to be but a vehicle to direct voters to an older variety of new technology—the campaign website—that candidates use to communicate additional information to voters. Specifically, 71% and 76% of posts link the campaign’s website, versus 5% and 10% that link a candidate’s social media profile, for Obama and Romney, respectively. This happens because campaigns exert greater control over the messages they convey on their own webpage, which can also be more substantive or detailed than a single tweet.

Even social media coverage of important campaign events tended to reflect traditional news events and broadcasts. Romney won the first presidential debate handily, by a 72%–20% margin, according to Gallup (Jones 2012). Romney’s victory was reflected accurately and consistent with traditional news in the blogosphere. Here, Romney enjoyed a 45% to 12% advantage in favorable coverage (PEJ 2012e), which compares with 23% and 37% negative traditional news coverage for Romney and Obama, respectively (PEJ 2012f). At first, it would appear that the president’s presence on Twitter (35%–22% favorable advantage) and Facebook (at a slightly less but still favorable 40% to 36% margin) was more favorable and did not follow traditional news coverage of the Romney victory. Yet PEJ (2012e) disaggregates these numbers to illustrate that much of the pro-Obama tally was critical of Romney (only 9% of the 35% praised Obama on Twitter) and that even the favorable Romney commentary was more critical of Obama than lauding Romney. If social media posts were more favorable to Obama, they certainly were not more positive.

All in all, these data suggest substantial variation by social media and some advantage to President Obama. Some social media, especially Internet blogs, were more likely to follow traditional news in its coverage of the first presidential debate. Other social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, reflected a slight Obama advantage, likely given his superior number of Facebook friends and (p.147) Twitter followers. Still, the advantage was not so substantial that we could discount outright evidence that illustrates how social media users are fairly balanced ideologically (Pew Internet and American Life Project 2012). Moreover, it would not be fair to say that the disparities in social media between candidates was a determining or, perhaps, even a consequential factor in the 2012 presidential election campaign, despite their correlation with the eventual outcome.

Conclusion

This chapter examines the content of both traditional and social media coverage of the 2012 presidential election campaign. In doing so, it makes an important contribution to a burgeoning literature on how newer media cover presidential elections and the extent to which this coverage differs from traditional news coverage. Using the best readily available data provided by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, this chapter reveals that although social and other forms of Internet media provide citizens with new and different ways to express their political opinions and learn about politics, this technology has produced only marginal differences in the substance of campaign news coverage. Whereas social media were more negative, they still tend to follow traditional news coverage, which, as expected, follows regular events—both scheduled or not—throughout the election campaign.

As this study is limited to the 2012 presidential election campaign, the generalizability of the conclusions is limited. We cannot say whether users of new media would have participated in recent elections absent this technology or whether voters’ control of the campaign message is dependent on the existence of social media. Yet reflecting on other changes to media in recent elections suggests that most people, particularly younger voters who have been quick to adopt newer media, will participate with whatever media are cutting-edge, but only if they are already interested in participating in politics. Candidates in the 1992 presidential election campaign, which witnessed a sizeable turnout among young voters—and, in fact, a higher turnout rate among 18- to 29-year-olds than in 2008 (United States Election Project 2010)—relied on toll-free phone numbers to raise money and MTV to reach the younger audience. In 2008, turnout was also high, although it was text messages and phone apps used to raise money and Facebook and YouTube (not to mention candidate webpages) to communicate.

It is unlikely that if social media were unavailable in 2012, these voters would be oblivious to and disinterested in the presidential campaign. After all, the increase in voter participation, even among the young, was greater between 2000 and 2004 than between 2004 and 2008 (United States Elections Project 2010), when social media rose to prominence in American electoral politics. Thus, being able to claim that new media were the reason for higher participation among users of social media, in general, and young voters, in particular, is (p.148) dubious, especially given the strong and complementary link between traditional and new media as well as the lack of unambiguous scholarly evidence that the Internet or social media do well to engage voters.

Regardless, we know that candidates will use new media because some voters also use it. But, like 1992, this may reflect a smart politician using all available technology to expand his or her reach and maximize control of his or her campaign message. It is not that these new media somehow invigorated a generation that would have ignored presidential politics without a technological advance. Rather, new media provide, by definition, an innovative vehicle through which candidates can express their messages and voters can learn about those messages if they are predisposed to use that technology. Social media provide voters more opportunity to speak with an independent campaign voice, nevertheless, that, while it currently tracks traditional news, may provide more message variation and decentralized control of that message in future elections.

The question may yet be asked whether a new medium matters to the outcome of an election. Although the nature of the relationship—the technological means to communicate—is qualitatively different, new media do not necessarily enhance a presidential candidate’s ability to win an election. Rather, our theories of political communication and campaigning should hold regardless of changes in technology. That being said, future research is still needed to examine with greater sophistication the causal relationships between traditional and nontraditional media to substantiate the claims of this essay and to determine who really influences whom in the postbroadcast era of presidential campaigns and who will control the message in future campaigns.

In point of fact, social media have increased the capacity of participating Americans to communicate their views about politics and the campaign. Social media are opinion-driven, decentralized forms of communication. Still, this study maintains that even these individualized comments are driven by the overarching and typical events of a presidential campaign and the traditional means through which most have watched presidential campaign events, such as debates, since 1960. Yes, people can watch campaign events on their computer or phones; but it is traditional content that drives the campaign message, even if there now may be many more perspectives on these events and additional information sources for traditional media to tap in their reporting of campaign events. Nevertheless, this development alone now requires candidates to be alert to any new messages that may help or hurt their chances for victory, adding yet another wrinkle to effective campaign communications and strategies to control the campaign messages now and into the future.

(p.149) Notes

References

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Notes:

(1.) Whereas new media is defined as electronic interactive media, such as the Internet and other postindustrial forms of telecommunication (New media 2012), old media is considered to be media in existence before the arrival of the Internet, such as newspapers, books, television, and cinema. I operationalize traditional media the same way as the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, so that traditional media include virtually all media except social media, whereas new media include Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and when coded, YouTube.

(2.) Others interpret Boulianne’s article much more positively. Nisbet, Stoycheff, and Pearce (2012, 253), for example, emphasize the positive relationships between Internet use and political engagement but do not consider the qualifications to these findings raised by Boulianne in the discussion section of her article. She concludes that research is not conclusive as to the causality of the relationship between Internet use and political engagement. Moreover, most positive effects wash out if a study controls for a user’s prior political interest.

(3.) Although Jamieson and Capella’s (2008) book focuses on traditional media, one can reasonably extrapolate their findings to the web version of Fox News Channel: Foxnews.com.

(4.) As both Dutta-Bergman (2004) and Althaus and Tewksbury (2000) studied only the early years of postbroadcast media, it remains to be seen if their conclusions persist into the age of Facebook and Twitter. Moreover, how people use the Internet may change during a highly salient national event such as a presidential election campaign (see Tewksbury 2006). Interestingly, the PEJ shows only a marginal increase in social media usage during the height of the 2012 presidential election campaign. It reports only slight increases in the percentage of regular Twitter (2% to 4%), YouTube (3% to 7%), and Facebook (6% to 12%) users for news (PEJ 2012c).

(5.) The overall conclusion of this study reinforces this idea. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center, told ABC News, “There is a mixed picture along party lines. One party doesn’t have an obvious social media edge. The biggest driver here is whether you are interested in politics in the first place. If you talk about it with friends, you are going to use the social tools to talk politics” (Stern 2012).

(6.) Although this hypothesis should also extend to the topic of news coverage—just as traditional media focus primarily on the horse race, so, too, should social media—PEJ does not report horse-race-related posts on social media.

(7.) There are studies of social media in the 2010 midterm elections, nevertheless (Bode et al. 2011).

(8.) The PEJ documents and describes each of its coding decisions at the end of every study (see PEJ 2012f, for one example). It also reports intercoder reliability statistics for human coders, indicating agreement in the range of 78% to 91%.

(9.) PEJ does not specify why it selected these range of dates or why it missed one week in October, for example.

(10.) The importance of events on fluctuation is not limited to either the general election contest or comparisons between Obama and Romney. Traditional media followed its events-driven approach with Herman Cain coverage, as he became more newsworthy after his Florida straw poll victory in September 2011. The volume of his traditional news coverage continued to increase and then explode after he struggled to answer questions related to Libya and allegations (and later admission) of an extramarital affair (PEJ 2011b). (p.150)

(11.) PEJ (2012f) was careful to tally only campaign coverage in these percentages, not coverage of Hurricane Sandy. Only 4% of campaign coverage concerned the storm.

(12.) Positive coverage tracks negative, at 37% and 20% positive horse-race coverage for Obama and Romney, respectively.

(13.) Romney enjoyed more positive newspaper coverage, whereas Obama enjoyed more positive network television news coverage.

(14.) The PEJ (2012f) reports that at least on Election Day, for example, posts were not used for substantive discussions but rather for users to express their personal views on the election (28% of mentions on Twitter and blogs; 50% on Facebook).