Another critical, though sometimes less prominent part of election news reporting, is the amount of coverage devoted to issues. Issue coverage is important in that it can influence which issues people consider to be important, a pattern known as agenda setting.
Although news outlets historically have an important agenda-setting influence in American campaigns, the amount of issue coverage often is dwarfed by or mixed with mentions of campaign strategy.[ref Lawrence, R. G. (2000). Game-framing the issues: Tracking the strategy frame in public policy news. Political Communication, 17(2), 93-114. doi:10.1080/105846000198422.; McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36(2), 176-187. doi:10.1086/267990] As communication researchers Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson explain about news coverage of presidential campaigns, the balance of news coverage has shifted from stories mentioning public issues “to ones that emphasize who is ahead and behind, and the strategies and tactics of campaigning necessary to position a candidate to get ahead or stay ahead.”[ref Cappella & Jamieson (1997, p. 33)] This research offers a perspective on the extent to which local news outlets mention issues discussed in the context of the campaign.
We evaluated whether each of the 428 election-related articles included in the analysis mentioned any of 14 different issues. Two-thirds of the news stories (66%) mentioned at least one issue. Across the news articles examined, 19% mentioned a single issue associated with the campaign, 12% mentioned two issues, and 11% mentioned three issues.
The top issue mentioned was public safety (25% of the news stories), which included mentions of guns, crime, and emergency response. The next most frequently mentioned issues were education (23%) and social issues, including abortion, LGBTQ matters, and women’s rights (23%). Taxes and budgetary issues were the next most prominently emphasized issue (22%). Trade was the least frequently discussed issue for which we coded; it was mentioned in only 4% of the articles.
We analyzed whether articles mentioning one of these top four issues (public safety, education, social matters, and budgets) were any more successful in terms of page views, time on page, or social referrals. We found articles mentioning any one of these issues yielded a similar number of page views, a similar number of social referrals, and a similar amount of read time compared to articles not mentioning these issues.[ref In three separate regression models predicting the number of page views, average time on page with a news story, and social referrals (with controls for the news outlet, article word count, type of article, campaign race type, headline type, and strategy mentions), mentions of budgetary, public safety, education, and social issues do not significantly predict these engagement metrics. Coverage of budget and tax issues has a marginally significant influence on average read time (B=.29 SE=.06; p<.10). The dependent variables – page views and social referrals – were modeled using negative binomial regression.]
News coverage of issues declines as election approaches
The number of issues mentioned in election-related local news stories declined as the primary election approached. On average, a news story published 20 to 31 days prior to the election had almost 3 issue mentions compared to 1.5 issue mentions in news stories published zero to nine days prior to Election Day. This change over time is statistically significant.[ref The number of issues mentioned differed significantly across time, F(2, 423)=12.49, p<.01. A Games-Howell post hoc comparison reveals that the average number of issues mentioned zero to nine days (M=1.54) and 10 to 19 days prior to the election (M=2.44) differed significantly (p<.01). The average number of issues mentioned zero to nine days (M=1.54) and 20 to 31 days (M=2.87) prior to the election differed significantly (p<.01). There were no significant differences between issue mentions 10 to 19 days and 20 to 31 days prior to the election (p=.41). These results are affirmed when the number of issue mentions are regressed in two negative binomial regression models with controls for the news outlet, article word count, type of article, campaign race type, strategy mentions, and a continuous or ordinal-level (1, 2, 3) treatment of the time variable.]
Time on page higher when more issues mentioned in the article
We looked at whether the number of issues mentioned in an article correlated at all to audience engagement metrics such as time on page, social referrals, or page views.
Articles that mentioned more issues tended to receive greater time on page with readers. Each story could mention between zero and 14 issues as part of this research. On average, each local election story contained 2.18 issue mentions. As the number of issues mentioned in a news story increased, so too did the average time individuals spent with the corresponding article.[ref In an OLS regression model predicting average time on page with a news story (with controls for the news outlet, article word count, type of article, campaign race type, headline type, and strategy mentions), the number of issue mentions significantly increased time on page (B=.08 SE=.03; p<.01). We note that using a dichotomized value for issue mentions (0, 1) has a marginally significant effect on read time (B=.23 SE=.12; p<.10).] As the number of issues mentioned increased by one in a news story, individuals stayed on the page 4.5 seconds longer. In our analysis, we control for the story word count, so this result cannot be explained by differences in the article length.
There was not a statistically significant relationship between issue mentions and other engagement metrics, including page views and social referrals.[ref In two regression models predicting story page views and social referrals (with controls for the news outlet, article word count, type of article, campaign race type, headline type, and strategy mentions), the number of issue mentions did not significantly affect page views (B=-.04 SE=.03; p=.23) or social referrals (B=.01 SE=.05; p=.80). The dependent variables – page views and social referrals – were modeled using negative binomial regression. We note that using a dichotomized value for issue mentions (0, 1) has a significant, negative effect on page views (B=-.35 SE=.16; p<.05), meaning that any mention of issues reduced the overall number of page views to a news story.]