May 16, 2003

: A good story…

I ended the previous article in this series with a question about how frontrunners emerge in the pre-primary “race.” The second of the three ways the press stabilizes the primary process offers an answer to this question: Frontrunners emerge based on the level of viability created for each. The press creates viability by constructing distinct master narratives (from the structural biases of journalism) for each candidate.

In horse-race coverage, each candidate is framed by a story of their candidacy. These stories may be positive or negative depending upon how the press interprets each candidate’s actions.

These stories are built up over time, typically between the time of announcement and the beginning of the primary season. Some candidates, usually those who have previously run for President or are otherwise well-known nationally, may begin the race with a set narrative.

Master narratives are human dramas, not policy dramas. The press–with the help of the candidates’ own attempts at image control–frames articles and TV coverage to match these narratives.

To see how this works, and to check the early narratives, read “The Crowded Bus,” from the American Journalism Review. This article offers an excellent overview of the process of news coverage and the press’ role in the creation of viability and master narratives (although I think author Rachel Smolkin might disagree with my use of “creation” in this context).

Another article from earlier this year is worth a second look now, “The Invisible Primary” by journalism professor Christopher Hanson for the Columbia Journalism Review. You’ll notice he’s unaware of Prof. William G. Mayer’s predictive model of the nomination process. Be that as it may, he comes to a conclusion I heartily endorse:

So here is a modest proposal: news media should front-load their own schedules and start full-throttle coverage of candidates

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