March 27, 1998

The Clinton Crisis and the Press

Different Types of Media

Different Types of Media

Print was much more specific about characterizing sources than television.

Newspapers, the Associated Press and the news weeklies used the vaguest characterization of anonymous sourcing–sources said or the news organization has learned–26% of the time. Television used this blind characterization 68% percent of the time.

The two media were much closer when it came to describing the potential allegiance or bias of an anonymous sources (18% in print, 15% on TV).

Print was five times more likely to characterize a source's job affiliation, (25% of the time for print, 5% for broadcast).

One explanation is that in the compressed time frame of television, journalists often forgo identifying sources, since many of those names might not mean much to viewers anyway. The question is whether that standard applies as well to an investigative story, where such details may help viewers judge the story.

Although the universe is not large enough generally to break out individual news outlets, one statistic may be worth mentioning. The Associated Press on the days studied did not characterize the bias of any anonymous sources.

Interestingly, the tabloid press, which in the study included Star, the New York Post, the National Enquirer, Inside Edition and Geraldo, were sometimes more specific in characterizing sources on the three days studied.

Only 33% of the time did they rely simply on "sources say" or "the news organization has learned," more than newspapers but less than the networks.

Nearly a third of the time, (30%) the tabloids offered insight into the source's bias. This is no endorsement of the tabloid genre, but rather an indication of where the mainstream press can do better. Often those who skate closest to the edge of sensation know that, for legal reasons, they have to be careful about attribution.

The tabloid press attributed anonymous reports to "rumors" seven percent of the time, roughly twice that of the mainstream press.

How Coverage has Changed Over Time

Sources and Attribution for Mainstream News

This second snapshot of the Lewinsky story captured three days in March that may or may not have been typical, but they were dramatic. They were the day that the Clinton deposition in the Paula Jones case was leaked to the Washington Post, the day following, and that week's subsequent news magazines.

If you compare the same outlets in January versus March on this story, (eliminating the Sunday shows and Larry King Live from our earlier January universe because they are not included in March), the news media seemed to be moving more toward the use of named sources and away from punditry, especially at certain news organizations.

In January, more than one in three of all statements by journalists (37%) were either reporter analysis or punditry. In the three days studied in March, the level of analysis and punditry had declined noticeably to one in four remarks (26%).

And this came at a moment, during the release of the Clinton deposition, when the news might reasonably be expected to have called for a fair amount of analysis, or certainly invited a significant amount of punditry.

The shift suggests that at least incrementally the press did react to complaints by the public and critics that the media were getting ahead of the facts.

When it came to what was reported, perhaps not surprisingly, the most commonly reported topics concerned either elements from Clinton's deposition or Vernon Jordan's simultaneous appearance before the grand jury. The three most commonly reported statements involved the leaked Clinton deposition, who asked Vernon Jordan to help Monica Lewinsky and questions about whether Clinton was dissembling.