An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2010

Are there lessons for the future of news from the 2008 presidential campaign?

Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Jeffrey A. Gottfried

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2001, is Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Her publications include Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words (with Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, 2008) and Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (with Joseph N. Cappella, 2008).

Jeffrey A. Gottfried is a senior researcher at the Annenberg Public Policy Center and a doctoral student of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include “A Rhetorical Judiciary, Too?” (with Kathleen Hall Jamieson), Critical Review (2008).

When news does its job, attentive citizens are better able to understand both the challenges facing the country and the competing visions of those seeking to lead it. Indeed, some argue that “the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”1 In years past, those studying media have reliably found that consumers of traditional news were better informed about issues of national concern.2 However, the growth of a new media culture in which partisans are able to envelop themselves in like-minded content raises a question: in the world of ideologically tinged cable news, opinion-talk radio, and viral email, does news in any of its various incarnations still sift fact from fabrication and, in the process, heighten a voter’s knowledge about those aspiring to lead?

Our study of the presidential general election campaign of 2008 suggests that traditional news sources are not the custodians of fact that they once were. At the same time, sources that blend discussion of news with what we call opinion-talk are at least occasional purveyors of unbalanced issue coverage and misinformation. In this transformed media environment, presidential debates hold up as one of the only venues, if not the sole source, that heightens citizens’ campaign knowledge. These conclusions arise from our study of how newspapers, national and local broadcast and cable news, Internet, talk radio, and debate audiences responded to questions about the central deceptions advanced by the major party candidates.

In the general presidential election of 2008, viewers in battleground states were assaulted by deceptive claims, among them that Arizona Senator and Republican Party nominee John McCain wanted to cut Social Security and stay in Iraq for one hundred years and that Illinois Senator and Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama did not take Iran seriously and had a close relationship with former Weather Underground leader William Ayers.3  The two most prevalent distortions, each backed by multimillion-dollar ad buys, involved taxation. Specifically, the Democrats alleged that McCain would impose a net tax on health care benefits, and the Republicans insisted that Obama would raise taxes on working families including “yours.” Where the Obama campaign spent $43 million on broadcast ads asserting the first claim, the McCain campaign devoted $53 million to spots alleging the second.4

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  • 1Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect (New York: Crown, 2001), 17.
  • 2For example, see Steven H. Chaffee, Xinshu Zhau, and Glenn Leshner, “Political Knowledge and the Campaign Media of 1992,” Communication Research 21 (1994)
  • 3For a more in-depth look at the major deceptions throughout the 2008 presidential election, see Joe Miller, “The Whoppers of 2008,” September 25, 2008, http://www.factcheck .org/elections-2008/the_whoppers_of_ 2008.html; Viveca Novak, “The Whoppers of 2008–the Sequel,” October 31, 2008, _whoppers_of_2008_—_the_sequel.html.
  • 4The two deceptions of focus in this paper were chosen because they had the most advertising expenditure of all the deceptive claims during the election; all advertising spot counts, estimated expenditures, and ad transcripts were provided by Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG).
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