Teachable Instant: Issues & Non-Issues in Campaign Coverage

June 15, 2015

In this brief activity, students reflect on issues that are most important to them, discuss why 65 percent of media election coverage is not about issues, and consider what they most want to know from candidates.   

Issues that matter to us

The 2016 presidential election is already underway, and a growing number of candidates are already beginning to compete for votes.  In a democracy, it is assumed that people will vote for the candidate who best represents their beliefs and opinions on major issues facing the nation, state, or community.

Ask students: 

  • What issues are most important to you at this moment?

Record students’ responses on the board, asking for clarifications or eliciting additional ideas if necessary.  You might prompt responses by asking questions such as: 

  • What challenges do you face in the future - and how would you like government to address them? 
  • What issues are facing you, your family, and your community? 
  • Is our country acting in ways that reflect your values and ideals (eg, racial or economic equality, democracy, fairness, peace...)?  
  • What policies would you like to see that better reflect those values?

Now ask students: 

  • Do you think the media has done a good job of informing you about where the 2016 presidential candidates stand on the issues you care about the most? 

What is the media covering?

Tell students that polls leading up to the last (mid-term) election in 2014 showed that the issues most Americans cared about included the economy, health care, immigration,  "social issues," the environment,  and guns.  But according to the group Media Matters, only 35 percent of network coverage of the 2014 elections actually mentioned these issues. In the 2012 presidential race, only 22 percent of media coverage dealt with policy issues.

The 2016 presidential race is already following a similar pattern.  Ask students if they know of any of the non-issue coverage that "news" outlets have been providing about the Democratic and Republican candidates.  Possible responses might include:

  • Hillary Clinton's personality
  • Jeb Bush's family
  • Marco Rubio's personal finances
  • Ted Cruz's campaign strategy
  • Scott Walker's courting of social conservatives
  • Bernie Sanders' quashing of rumor about dual citizenship
  • Carly Fiorina's campaign ads
  • Rick Perry's indictment for abuse of power
  • Lindsey Graham's marital status
  • Ben Carson pushing scam "medicine"
  • George Pataki's longshot status
  • Martin O'Malley's lack of media coverage
  • Rick Santorum's small campaign events
  • Mike Huckabee's  jokes about transgender

Read aloud or ask volunteers to read each of the quotes below.

"It's pretty clear that millions of Americans will go to the polls on Election Day armed with only scant knowledge of the issues, Some of them might be a bit surprised next year when the new President pursues policies quite different from those they thought he would."
-- Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, Kennedy School of Government

"For every 100 words, for every two minutes that I spend on the latest optics, the latest gaffe, the latest personality quirks, the latest move on the [political] chessboard, I’m going to spend an equal amount of time talking about what’s REALLY at stake."
-- Blogger and radio host Jay Smooth

For Discussion

Discuss with students:

  • If reporters covered the issues, would people be interested enough to tune in? Are important issues too complicated (or boring) to attract viewers?
  • What effect do you think the internet has on getting election coverage? Social media?
  • What can we as tv/cable/internet/radio/newspaper viewers and readers do to influence media coverage of elections?

Optional Activity

Imagine that you are a newly-graduated high school senior and a newly-registered voter. You want to continue your education, but covering the cost of college tuition will be extremely difficult for you and your family.  What do you want to know from the 2016 presidential candidates? 

Generate a list of questions with students.  These might include:

  • Has the candidate proposed more federal aid to higher education? Do they have an actual plan or proposal?
  • In their current office, has he or she introduced any legislation to increase funding?
  • What is the candidate's plan to make college more affordable? Do they favor cutting the interest rate on student loans? Have they proposed any other specific plan to reduce student debt?
  • Has the candidate proposed or endorsed any program leading to student debt forgiveness?
  • Has the candidate proposed a plan to help lower-income students stay in college, once admitted?
  • Has the candidate demonstrated a commitment to two-year colleges?

Ask each student (or groups of students) to research where different 2016 presidential candidates stand on these issues.  In the next class, have students share what they’ve learned and discuss which candidate, if any, they would want to vote for.

Alternative Optional Activity

Have the students break into groups. Assign each group a political issue (e.g. jobs, taxes, immigration, war in the Middle East, health care), or have each group decide on the issue they are most interested in. Ask each group to generate at least five questions they would want to have answered before deciding their vote. 

Then have each group research candidates' stands on these questions.  In the next class, have students share what they’ve learned and discuss which candidate, if any, they would want to vote for.