General Election News Coverage: What Engages Audiences Down the Ballot

Document Type

White Paper

Publication Date



As Election Day approaches, more people seek news and information about politics. To understand the habits of news audiences in the run-up to the election, we analyzed what was being covered in reporting about down-ballot, non-presidential races for U.S. Congress, governor, and local offices in the lead-up to the 2016 general election. The results shared in this white paper suggest a tough spot for news organizations. Issue coverage is often heralded for helping to inform the public, yet the results show that the more issues covered in a news article, the lower the page views and social referrals. Issue coverage also declined in volume as the election approached, right when many prospective voters tuned in. The results do provide some insight into when issue coverage worked, however. Articles discussing social issues and corruption – two highly salient issues during the campaign – saw increased traffic.

This report, prepared as a collaboration between the Engaging News Project and the American Press Institute (API) and funded by the Democracy Fund, looks at local news coverage of the 2016 general election and what kinds of campaign coverage may have encouraged engagement with election news. We examined local news coverage by nine newspapers across six states.

The Engaging News Project categorized 705 general election-related newspaper stories that referenced a non-presidential campaign from the websites of the nine news outlets, tracking mentions of issues, campaign strategy, and fact-checking, among other campaign coverage characteristics. Where applicable, we compare these findings to an analysis of 435 primary election-related stories from an earlier report.

We correlated attributes of election news coverage with data from API’s Metrics for News (www.metricsfornews.com), an analytics tool that measures engagement in new ways and provides unique data-driven insights for publishers. The results offer an illustration of how people engage with various types of election news content.

Was this content written or created while at USF?