Almost without exception, the state’s daily newspapers led their New Jersey primary stories with language indicating that Hillary Clinton had held off a challenge from Barack Obama:
Gannett – Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated the late-surging Barack Obama in New Jersey’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday…”
Courier-Post – Hillary Rodham Clinton overcame a fierce challenge from Barack Obama to win New Jersey’s Democratic primary Tuesday…”
The Record – Hillary Clinton held off a surging Barack Obama to win New Jersey’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday as party power brokers, Latino voters and labor unions helped her avoid an embarrassing loss.
Star-Ledger – New York Sen. Hillary Clinton withstood a furious, final-days challenge from Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in her own backyard to win the Democratic primary in New Jersey yesterday amid a record-shattering turnout by voters.
True, Clinton had long maintained a convincing lead in the polls and Obama had narrowed that gap in recent weeks. But by portraying Obama as the challenger, these stories created the impression that Hillary Clinton already had won something in New Jersey.
That’s fine if you are writing about a prize fight in which a boxer is challenging a heavyweight champion who has won several bouts to earn his title. But in the New Jersey primary, the fact is Hillary Clinton had not won anything before Tuesday. When the polls opened at 6 a.m., she and Barack Obama had exactly the same number of votes – zero.
Yes, Clinton was ahead in virtually every voter poll conducted prior to the primary, but the credibility of polls took a beating in New Hampshire earlier this year. And as candidates are fond of saying, the only poll that matters is the one that takes place in the voting booth.
By framing stories in this manner – whether or not intentionally – journalists have the ability to shape events, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The press both covers events and, in choosing what to report and how to report it, shapes their outcome,” she wrote in The Press Effect.
In discussing the disputed 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Jamieson contends that the frame became one in which Bush was perceived as the winner and Gore as the challenger, even though there was no clear-cut winner. This in effect made it more difficult for the Gore team to gain support.
Moving back to New Jersey, the lead of the Star-Ledger’s national story on Super Tuesday created an air of invincibility for John McCain:
“Sen. John McCain continued his march toward the Republican presidential nomination…”
Now that Mitt Romney has bowed out of the GOP primary, it appears that McCain most likely will “march toward the Republican nomination.” But on Wednesday, when this story appeared, Romney was still a candidate, albeit a weakened one. Yes, McCain’s nomination appeared inevitable, but nothing is inevitable. Just ask the New York Mets, whose chances of playing in the 2007 post-season were considered inevitable before their historic collapse.
When journalists create a sense of inevitability, it can have a direct impact on public perception.
For example, a study by Jack Lule of Lehigh University found that news reports prior to the 2003 war in Iraq were based upon the assumption that war was inevitable. In turn, this assumption had profound implications in terms of public support for the war. This conclusion was based on six weeks of coverage by NBC Nightly News in which the network titled its reports Countdown: Iraq, Showdown: Iraq, and Target: Iraq.
“By using Countdown: Iraq as a structural metaphor, particularly in the middle of February 2003, NBC Nightly News affirmed the inevitability of conflict with Iraq at a time when many Americans and nations around the world were still attempting to prevent the conflict,” Lule wrote in Journalism Studies.
One could argue that the consequences of framing Hillary Clinton and John McCain as candidates in commanding positions on Super Tuesday may not be as great as the frames that helped build public support for the war in Iraq. That is true, but with Super Tuesday, we also are talking about a process that ultimately will determine who will serve as the nation’s next chief executive in one of the most challenging times in our history.
And that is a decision that deserves to be made carefully and thoughtfully by a well-informed electorate.
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Has Election Coverage Entered A Brave New World?