Alford: The Fourth Estate and the fourth floor


Reporters, talking heads, columnists, editors and producers are slowly taking more of an interest in Louisiana’s race for governor, based on a recent analysis from LaPolitics.com of state and national news published between May 30 and Aug. 29, 2019.

That makes sense. Labor Day has long been the turning point in our four-year election cycles. As the spotlight grows on football and fall festivals, so does general interest in major elections. Plus, televised debates for the governor’s race are right around the corner. 

Still, the uptick in campaign coverage pales in comparison to the attention the incumbent, challengers and issues were receiving earlier this year. The total number of media mentions for our top election and its players was 264 on May 31, as the Legislature’s session was drawing to a close, and then peaked at 320 mentions over the course of July 12, when Hurricane Barry was grabbing headlines.

Those individual daily figures have yet to be matched. Last week, for instance, mentions of the race and its connected parts averaged 88 per day. But with increased spending expected on TV, online and inside your mailboxes, media mentions of the race should inch up—unless the contest somehow bores the Fourth Estate, which doesn’t appear to be overly energized at the moment. 

The lack of enthusiasm should serve as a warning to the professionally-run campaigns that earned coverage may not be easy to come by this cycle. So far, however, we’ve seen some interesting case studies. (For our purposes, “earned media” refers to a news story or item that a campaign did not have to pay for, as opposed to paid media, like a television commercial.)

Businessman Eddie Rispone of Baton Rouge, a well-known Republican donor now a candidate for a change, made the biggest earned media splash with his first television commercial. His campaign turned the spot into a multi-day story, first giving reporters information about the multi-million media buy. Then there was reactionary coverage about the ad itself, which aligned Rispone with President Donald Trump, and was followed by opinion articles about who the Rispone was and why he was employing such a tactic. 

Regarding the most recent round of news coverage on the race, “gender” was among the top terms used by journalists, a clear nod to the campaign of U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham. The Alto Republican cut a commercial last month declaring there to be only two genders, which stirred up a storm in the LGBT+ community. The move also landed Abraham loads of earned media. It was another signal that Abraham’s campaign is prepared to wage a smart media battle that stretches its dollars. (Given the reaction, it could become the smartest earned media move of the cycle.)

Now, when it comes to earned media on a consistent basis, no one is in a better position than the incumbent, who is practically guaranteed daily earned media through his position. For Gov. John Bel Edwards, that’s mostly a plus, except when it’s not.

Out of the roughly 5,000 articles published between May 30 and Aug. 29, those with the most readership focused on either Hurricane Barry or the death of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Aside from those topics, hands down the most-read stories about our gubernatorial election nationally centered on Edwards’ endorsement of an abortion ban this spring. It was a hot issue when the bill was passed, and it remains a big topic for hardcore Democrats who were with the governor in 2015 but are now wondering where to stand in 2019. On the other hand, Edwards has always campaigned as a conservative, and his stance on abortion has been clear, which means the coverage may have helped him with some moderate-to-right voters.

Just keep tabs on your local media outlets. A lot more coverage is coming.

As for a corresponding boost in voter sentiment, that remains a guessing game. An analysis conducted via Cision found that a neutral sentimentality regarding the election’s coverage was looking to peak last week and remains high. Discounting that very recent trend, a negative audience sentiment far outpaced positive sentiments last calendar month overall.

How the more important trend of neutrality reads in real life depends on who you ask. Some media consultants and communications professionals suggest the neutral sentiment means voters aren’t fully engaged with the unfolding race, or particularly interested. Others, meanwhile, argue that the stats paint a portrait of a broad mix of undecided voters—a bloc that could sway the election.

Jeremy Alford publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, atLaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.