Researcher calls for new campaign, election coverage approaches

August 17, 1995

ANN ARBOR—With campaigning for the 1996 presidential election already under way, poll-based news stories pervade media coverage of the race for the White House.

But according to “Presidential Polls and the News Media,” a new book co-edited by University of Michigan communication studies Professor Michael W. Traugott, media are ” data-rich but analysis-poor” when it comes to producing coverage based on election polls.

“Given the millions of dollars that the news media now spend on election polling and other social science techniques to gather information to supplement traditional ‘shoe-leather’ journalism, it is somewhat of a wonder that they do so little in making use of the information they gather,” says Traugott, whose book is aimed at journalists dissatisfied with the way their news organizations cover political campaigns.

Traugott and co-editors Paul J. Lavrakas and Peter V. Miller of Northwestern University believe that news organizations must do more than simply report poll results; they must devote adequate time and resources to in-depth analyses and framing of election coverage.

“Their goal should be not only to assure that reporters write accurate stories, but more importantly, that they write the right stories,” says Traugott, director of the Program in Media and Politics at the U-M Center for Political Studies. “The current state of affairs wherein considerable resources are utilized to gather election poll data but inadequate planning and resources are given to making the best use of them is not only bad journalism, it is bad business.”

According to Traugott, polls clearly have a significant influence on campaigns and election outcomes” all the more reason for media to exercise “better” news judgment in planning and executing such coverage.

He says that journalists must pay closer attention to explaining what possible election outcomes will mean for various segments of readers or viewers, especially as a campaign winds down and many in the electorate are deciding how to vote or whether to vote at all.

“This suggests the need for added attention to issue coverage,” Traugott says. ” The media should not allow candidates solely to dictate the issues and rhetoric of the campaign.”

The book also calls for news organizations to implement a team approach to campaign coverage with editors and political reporters working with election survey experts, who would interpret for journalists the meaning of poll results and work with them to decide what is newsworthy and what is not.

“Although traditional journalistic interviewing and qualitative techniques are not likely to require extensive technical skills to determine the meaning of what has been learned, extracting meaning from election surveys requires sophistication that heretofore has not been present in most newsrooms,” Traugott says.