February 18, 1998

The Clinton Crisis and the Press

What the Press Reported

The most common statement by journalists in the first days of the story was interpretative: that Clinton was in big trouble. Most often–more than a third of the time–reporters based this conclusion on their own opinion or speculation. Roughly a quarter of the time, journalists offered this as an analysis but cited some reporting to support it. Only 17% of the time did journalists cite named sources for this conclusion. Eleven percent of the time it was cited to another media source.

The second most common assertion–that Clinton denied the allegations–was usually attributed to Clinton himself in interviews he had granted.

The Top Allegations by Sourcing

Given the limited number of reporters who actually had listened to the tapes or interviewed Linda Tripp, most news organizations did not have any confirmation of the major allegation that drove this story–that Lewinsky had talked about having an affair with Clinton and the possibility of lying about it. In only 4% of cases was that allegation attributed to a named source. In more than six in ten cases it was attributed to other sources or offered as part of an analysis. In a third of the cases the news organization offered anonymous sources for that statement.

The fourth most common statement in the first week was that Lewinsky was negotiating for immunity with Kenneth Starr's office. Due in large part to the visibility of Lewinsky's attorney, this was most often attributed to a named or anonymous source. A third of the time it was analysis.

The next two most common statements were particularly judgmental: that Clinton was engaged in double talk and that impeachment was a possibility.

When it came to impeachment, four out of ten times that statement was attributed to named source, making it one of the hardest sourced allegations in the study. An equal amount of the time it was came from reporters offering their own opinion, speculation or judgment.

As for Clinton dissembling, the most common basis for that assertion was reporter's own opinion, speculation or judgement, about a third of the time. A quarter of the time reporters offered some attribution for that analysis. In one out of five cases it was attributed to a named source. Another one out of five times it was attributed to another news outlet.