In Ohio, campaign coverage is anti-social

Reporting on candidates' social media strategies is largely absent in key battleground

OHIO — Anyone even remotely plugged into the 21st century is well aware that the presidential campaigns, and to a lesser extent down-ballot races, have embraced social media to reach potential voters.

This development has not gone unnoticed by journalists. National outlets—from leading newspapers to magazines to tech-focused sites—turn out a steady stream of stories about the social side of the campaign. A smattering of examples from the past month include an overview piece in The New York Times; a Bloomberg story on hashtag wars; a Mashable article on political crowdfunding; and pieces from Forbes, Adweek, and even the San Francisco Chronicle about how campaigns and their supporters use tools like Twitter to push real-time debate spin and try to make certain moments go viral. These articles vary in their depth and insight, but they generally respond to the challenge UNC professor Daniel Kreiss laid down for journalists in an April interview with CJR—to explore how campaigns are exploiting new technologies to achieve traditional “electoral goals around fundraising, messaging, and votes.”

But despite generally strong political coverage in 2012, the campaign press here in Ohio—increasingly seen as the key state in the presidential election—is not keeping pace on the social-media story. A search of the major Ohio newspapers yielded only a few offerings, the majority of them from The Associated Press.

In August, The Columbus Dispatch did run a bylined story, but it was little more than a brief sampling of some of the social media tools and other new technologies that the campaigns—mostly Obama’s—employ.

The following month, The Blade of Toledo published an editorial headlined “The politics of Twitter,” worrying over the rise of the medium. The editorial sniffs, “Twitter journalists, a fringe group during the 2008 campaign, now get the same treatment from campaigns as star reporters from traditional media outlets.” It warns, “Relying on social media to become an informed or engaged voter carries risks.” And it admonishes politicians not to “use social media as another excuse to sidestep old-school media outlets that many people still rely on to ask questions that politicians would rather not answer.”

The editorial’s concerns aren’t entirely unfounded. A Pew report on the presidential campaigns’ use of social media notes that the Obama campaign has “localized its digital messaging significantly, adding state-by-state content pages filled with local information,” and has “also largely eliminated a role [within its own material] for the mainstream press.” (Thanks to Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon for the pointer to the Pew study.) But the importance of “old-school” reporting would be better demonstrated by some coverage that goes beyond the surface level to examine in detail what the campaigns are doing and saying in the social space—and to provide some of the scrutiny that reporters are increasingly bringing to TV ads and stump speech rhetoric.

In fairness, this is a daunting task. Digging into the weeds of the rapidly changing elements of social media presents unique challenges to local journalists, who are faced with the weekly grind of covering never-ending visits by the presidential and vice presidential candidates to this key swing state.

Henry Gomez, political reporter for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, is usually his paper’s sole resource for covering these visits, restricting time for enterprise stories.

“With those, I try to focus on strategies and policy,” Gomez told me. “I haven’t written anything [in-depth about the campaigns’ use of social media], nor has anybody at the paper.”

Nonetheless, Gomez sees potential value in drilling down into this story—if the information can be mined. And he set the bar in the right place for what coverage should try to achieve.

“If there is a deeper angle, that could be an illuminating and entertaining story, but it needs to go beyond so-and-so has so many followers,” he said. “I’ve asked the campaigns for more details on things … but they see this kind of data as proprietary.”

In an email response, Joe Hallett, senior editor of The Dispatch, noted the one story the paper has run (linked above) about campaigns and social media. The paper does “routinely mention” in articles and blog posts the ways in which campaigns communicate message to their supporters, and in some instances those mentions have generated stories, he added. And The Dispatch is planning to dig deeper on this issue in an upcoming story.

“I do know that both presidential campaigns have very robust social media operations—bigger and better focused than ever before,” Hallett wrote.

These replies suggest that, though the coverage doesn’t yet show it, Buckeye State journalists are well aware of the changing ways in which campaigns are being conducted. To grab onto that shifting story—and to help voters understand the whole picture, as social media political strategies will continue to evolve and multiply—may mean dealing with some hard decisions about how to use limited resources, and passing on some traditional coverage events like all those campaign visits.

For sure, interest is there. Tom Troy, political reporter for The Blade, sent this note back when asked about the lack of deeper coverage of the social campaign: “Good question, maybe I should look into it.”

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.