If Buffalo voters wanted to learn where mayoral candidates Byron Brown and India Walton stood on the issues, they were unlikely to find answers in the news media’s coverage of the campaign.
A content analysis of news coverage in the final two weeks of the race conducted by honors students at St. Bonaventure University showed that only eight of 38 stories were about issues of substance.
The majority of the articles focused on topics that ranged from endorsements and fundraising to campaign staff changes and statements about the Ku Klux Klan.
Most of the students attributed the lack of issue-based coverage to the need for media organizations to turn a profit.
Reflecting on the results of their content analysis, the students explained that, because news reports on policy are less likely to attract large numbers of viewers, coverage shifts to topics that voters are more likely to read.
While the study was just a snapshot of the campaign’s news coverage between Oct. 18 and 31, the results were consistent with research and analysis by media and political scholars.
As Larry Bartels wrote in his book Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice, “In covering a presidential campaign, the media tell us more about who is winning and who is losing than they do about who is fit to be president.”
And Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman, in their book The Press Effect, offered this explanation: “Most political reporters, particularly those who cover campaigns, are greater experts in politics than they are in policy. Since politics is what they know, politics is what they cover.”
So what policy issues were important to Buffalo voters?
In a poll conducted in August, crime was the issue that the largest percentage of respondents (26%) identified as the top priority for the winner of the city’s mayoral campaign.
Housing was the second (15%), followed by police reform (12%), education (10%), development (10%), jobs (10%), COVID-19 (6%), health care (3%) and homelessness (2%).
Perhaps if voters had been more likely to read stories about these issues, coverage of the Buffalo mayoral campaign would have looked much different.