Peter Hamby

Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus?
Searching for a better way to cover a campaign

August 28, 2013
By Peter Hamby


In a new paper released by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, Spring 2013 Fellow Peter Hamby, who covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential races for CNN, examines the challenges of reporting on a modern political race in today’s volatile online media ecosystem.

Drawing on interviews with more than 70 journalists and political operatives who worked in the hothouse of the 2012 presidential race, Hamby uses Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign as a case study to examine how new technologies are disrupting the techniques and values of political journalism, and how decision-makers inside campaigns are responding to them.

With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context and thoughtful analysis, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them. Any perceived gaffe or stumble can become a full-blown narrative in a matter of hours, if not minutes, thanks to the velocity of the Twitter conversation that now informs national reporters, editors and television producers. In fact, Hamby argues that Twitter is the central news source for the Washington-based political news establishment.

This filter-free new universe is having a profound impact on how campaign strategists are deciding to present their candidates to the media and to voters. The velocity and shallow nature of today’s political journalism has rattled elected officials, candidates and their advisers in both parties, from the smallest city hall on up to the top levels of the White House.

Because of this, candidates and politicians are increasingly trying to present their messages on their own terms, either through sympathetic news outlets or their own social media channels. More and more, the mainstream political press is being cut out of the election process, raising questions about the value of being a reporter on the bus, on the plane, or “in the bubble” traveling with a presidential candidate.

Hamby concludes with a look ahead to the 2016 presidential race. It’s impossible to know what new technologies will be in play come 2016, how they might impact newsgathering, and how candidates might react to them. The iPhone did not exist when Barack Obama announced his candidacy in 2007, and Twitter was only a blip on the Washington media radar. But Hamby solicits advice from a broad range of journalists and political professionals on how media organizations and campaigns might improve their practices for a presidential campaign that is already ramping up.

Read the full paper (PDF).

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