D.C., May 21, 1997 - The Pew Center for Civic Journalism and
The Record newspaper of Hackensack, N.J., today released a study
showing that nine weeks and 54 full pages of issues-based coverage in the
1996 New Jersey Senate race failed to break through the noise of that
heated, television-saturated campaign.
public journalism was challenged by the environment around it: While
'Campaign Central' was attempting to frame the Senate race as a
constructive debate, the candidates were spending more than $17 million on
television commercials that made it seems like a showdown in a sandbox,"
the report concluded.
One in five Record readers said they noticed the
"Campaign Central" pages, which appeared every day but Saturday inside the
paper's front section. That is about the same number of readers normally
drawn to political stories. The research included pre- and post-election
telephone surveys and focus groups.
The focus groups, in
particular, left Record editors "feeling stunned and somewhat
shaken," said the report. "The frames through which respondents viewed the
campaigns seemed to have been shaped mostly by the candidates'
Much more helpful to citizens, the researchers found,
was a Voter's Guide published the Sunday before the election that distilled
the narrative issues stories into quick issues charts.
study humbly underscores the challenge of reaching time-pressed readers
receiving political messages so many ways in so short a time," said Glenn
Ritt, The Record's vice president of news and information who had
supervised the research as the paper's editor. "It also suggests that all
journalism faces difficulty connecting with an electorate so disenchanted
with national politics."
He added, however, that The
Record's experience "has given us true insight not only into how to
package for an election campaign, but how to package more effectively for
the future of a newspaper."
"We fully realize that some civic
journalism experiments will fall short of expectations," said Ed Fouhy,
executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. "And while
questions may be raised about the interpretation of the data, we feel the
findings should become part of the learning process about how the media can
connect with citizens.
The research sought to measure the
impact of the "Campaign Central" pages on the hotly contested race between
Democrat Robert G. Torricelli and Republican Dick Zimmer. The civic
journalism coverage, which began on Labor Day, was in addition to more
conventional horse-race campaign journalism elsewhere in the newspaper.
"Campaign Central" coverage sought to emphasize issues rather
than campaign strategy, tried to give voice to citizen concerns, tried to
supply more detailed information about the candidates, and to provide
public forums and other opportunities for citizens to participate.
Among the research findings:
- Campaign Central was not successful in penetrating the
consciousness of Record readers. Only 19 percent could remember
reading "Campaign Central" vs. 43 percent who remembered the Voter's
- New Jerseyans paid just a modest amount of attention
to the Senate campaign through their newspapers. The research found that 44
percent of Record readers said television was their most important
source of campaign news.
- Forty-two percent of Record
readers could name neither Senate candidate after the election.
- Record readers did not end the campaign appreciably
more knowledgeable than readers of other New Jersey papers although more of
them said they felt better informed. (Record readers, for instance,
were about 10 percentage points more likely than readers of other Jersey
newspapers to say they thought they knew where the candidates stood on the
issues at the end of the campaign.)
- Record readers were no
different from readers of other papers in voting in and talking about the
"The results suggest there are
significant limits -- at least in the short term -- to the ability of
journalists to reconnect citizens with democratic institutions solely by
altering the way they write about them," the study said.
Among the questions raised by researchers David Blomquist, of
The Record, and Cliff Zukin, of Rutgers University, were:
- Was The Record's experiment too
short-lived to produce significant results?
- Was The
Record's public journalism coverage "blunted" by the continuation of
conventional campaign stories elsewhere in the paper?
- Was the
"Campaign Central" effort drowned out by competing messages from other
- Can public journalism alone overcome negative
messages about the democratic process from the candidates and the political
"Despite public journalism's innovations in
style and emphasis, the essential information citizens wanted was still too
difficult to find, understand and act upon," the study said.
enthusiastic reception for the Voter's Guide" suggests one reason why so
many people read past most of The Record's public journalism: They
may no longer have the time or inclination to absorb as much information in
"A challenge for public journalists will be to
address the demand for accessible, credible, and compact information about
the workings of democracy without reducing it to vapid or simplistic 'News