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Primary election coverage: What types of news engage audiences

A broad, data-driven analysis of campaign coverage by the Engaging News Project and the American Press Institute shows how local, state, and federal elections are covered across the United States and what types of campaign coverage engage individuals.

The Engaging News Project partnered with the American Press Institute to examine local news coverage of the 2016 election primaries by eight newspapers across six states. We focused on news coverage of the “down-ballot,” or non-presidential, races that typically garner less media preoccupation than the race for the White House but represent a significant bulk of election activity in the United States.

Using data from API’s Metrics for News, an analytics tool that measures engagement in new ways and provides unique data-driven insights for publishers, we gathered hundreds of election-related stories to understand the characteristics of news that may influence audiences.

The Engaging News Project categorized 428 election-related newspaper stories from the websites of the eight news outlets, tracking mentions of issues, campaign strategy, and fact-checking, among other campaign coverage characteristics. We then correlated those factors with the Metrics for News data to see what kinds of coverage engage readers.

Among this report’s findings:

  • Six in 10 articles examined contained at least one type of campaign strategy mention compared to 66% of articles that mentioned at least one campaign issue.
  • ‘Strategy’ coverage of local elections prominently features campaign fundraising/spending and the competitiveness of the horserace.
  • Increased campaign strategy coverage tends to get more page views, a potential challenge for those in journalism who want to encourage more issue-focused coverage.
  • Within issue-focused coverage, public safety, education, and social issues are most referenced in down-ballot election news this year. Articles mentioning these top issues had similar page views, social referrals, and time on page compared to articles not mentioning these topics.
  • The more issues an article mentions in total, the higher the average time on page. This result was true also after controlling for article length.
  • The number of total issue mentions declined in news coverage as the primary election approached, another challenge for informing voters who may not pay attention until the late moments of a campaign.
  • Readers spent more time on stories focused on state and local campaigns, like those for governor or city council, than they did on stories of federal races, such as those for the U.S. Senate and House.
  • Articles with clickbait-style headlines that withhold information seemed to backfire, getting fewer page views than articles with traditional headlines.
  • The local election news we studied included relatively little fact-checking of campaign claims, but when it did, these articles were no more or less engaging than other campaign coverage.

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