Report

New Hampshire Teaches News Media a Lesson

So widespread was the feeling in media and political circles that Barack Obama was about to pair his Iowa victory with a big New Hampshire win that two of the nation's most respected papers ran headlines all but predicting the triumph.

“Obama Carries Momentum to N.H,” declared the page 1 headline on a Jan. 8 Washington Post story, which mentioned Obama “anticipating a victory” in the first sentence. The front-page headline in the Jan 8. New York Times, above a photo of a pensive-looking Hillary Clinton, read “On Eve of Primary, Clinton's Campaign Shows Stress.''

Heading into the Feb. 8 election, most polls and many pundits were projecting a large victory, perhaps in double-digits, for Obama over Clinton—one that could conceivably cripple her campaign. And to the extent there was an 11th hour insider buzz on the Republican side, it was that Mitt Romney seemed to be closing the gap with John McCain.

Yet the conventional wisdom was flattened for a 10-count once the citizens of the “Live Free or Die” state actually cast their ballots. While the polls on the Republican side were accurate and McCain coasted to a reasonably comfortable win, Clinton stunned the political and media establishment with a narrow but decisive victory.

Within minutes, at least some of the pundit buzz turned away from understanding the voters to gazing at the media. “Why were the polls so wrong?” wondered Fox News Channel commentator Nina Easton, speaking for the stunned cable commentariat. “Clinton Victory Makes Fools of Doubters” read the headline atop the Politico.com post-mortem. Nothing captured the sense of the moment better than the Jan. 9 front-page banner headline on The Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts: “New Hampshire shocker”

If the press got the run-up to New Hampshire so wrong, how did they cover the aftermath? What were the leading narratives coming out of the first-in-the-nation primary?

To find out, PEJ examined 90 newspaper headlines, 30 top Google headlines online, coverage on the three main cable news networks and the broadcast network morning shows, and a major political web portal. And one message trumped all others.

Read the full report New Hampshire Teaches News Media a Lesson on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.