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Citizen's View: Campaigns should study media landscape

It isn’t until after Labor Day that most voters engage in the election. Through the primaries, the conventions and the rest of the summer, it’s mostly political junkies and news media who get hyped up and feed off of each other.

Come September, however, the campaigns really get going. This is when decisions made months earlier about messaging, messengers and audiences begin to pay off — or not. It’s also when campaigns seek favorable publicity through means other than paid advertising. Many campaigns devote considerable resources to “earned media,” especially in the form of favorable news coverage.

Thanks to changes in public perceptions of the media, however, campaign consultants may want to revisit their media strategy. This is especially true for two key groups: young voters and women.

When it comes to politics, candidates aren’t the only ones who need to worry about voter perceptions. Attitudes toward the news media are also in play, and most are negative. Here’s what we hear in our focus groups: “sensational,” “superficial,” “biased,” “ill-informed,” “combative” and “gotcha.” And these are the tamer associations with the fourth estate.

Survey results are no better. In a recent national survey we conducted, strong majorities of Americans feel “news sources are becoming less trustworthy.” Young people, whose turnout may be the most important factor in determining this fall’s results, are especially likely to agree. Local news outlets specifically don’t do any better. Fifty-six percent agree with the statement that “local news is mostly sensationalism and feel-good fluff, missing the gritty stuff which is important to know about.” (And strong agreement is twice as high as strong disagreement.) Furthermore, more Americans disagree than agree that their “local news is better now than a year ago.”

In Oregon, where more people follow the news for weather, sports and crime than for politics, a large majority of the general population say trustworthy news sources are difficult to find. (And three times more say “very difficult” than “not at all difficult.”) This sentiment cuts across demographic subgroups, including age and gender, and is one point that Democrats, Republicans and non-affiliated/others agree on.

Negative attitudes toward news media impair the likelihood that people will watch, read, listen to or trust the news, and call into question the

value of earned media. Another challenge for campaigns is that voters get their news through different channels today than they used to.

When we asked Americans in our survey about the frequency with which they used different news sources, print newspaper was at the bottom of the list. Only 14 percent said they “frequently” or “exclusively” turn to print media. By contrast, 69 percent use the computer most frequently or exclusively, followed by TV (50 percent) and smartphone (37 percent). Joining print newspaper near the bottom of the list was radio (21 percent) and tablet (17 percent).

Younger Americans are more likely to obtain news from their computer and smartphone, and less likely than their older counterparts to use the TV, radio and print newspapers. Women, however, were more likely than men to use the TV.

Despite its low ranking, however, campaign strategists should not ignore print. Newspapers often inform news reporting on TV and radio, and many people who get their news using their computer, smartphone or tablet do so on newspaper websites.

Online access to news creates a new world for campaigns, which may benefit from considering how the viewer’s movement through the Web, including their posting comments about the news, might play into their media strategies.

And while radio wasn’t highly ranked, public radio returns some promising results. Nationwide, strong majorities of Americans trust public radio, feel that it is good for the community, and that it is a good source for breaking news. In Oregon, public radio enjoys a favorable impression across all demographic groups, including youth and women. However, both nationally and statewide, most people (and particularly younger listeners) want their public radio stations to emphasize new media content suited for online consumption.

Labor Day is approaching and the campaign season is getting ready to take off. Millions of dollars will be spent between Sept. 6 and Nov. 8 to generate positive publicity in the media.

But the media landscape today is different from what we were used to even four years ago. November’s winners know this and are ready to execute effective communications plans.

Let the countdown begin.

Adam Davis, who has been conducting opinion research in Oregon and across the nation for more than 35 years, is a founding principal in DHM Research, located in Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C. (www.dhmresearch.com).