February 3, 2000

In the Public Interest?

Overview

The news media are offering the American public a fine education in campaign tactics but telling them little about matters that actually will affect them as citizens, a new study of presidential campaign coverage finds.

Leading up to Iowa and New Hampshire, the press has provided only scant reporting on the candidates’ backgrounds, records, or ideas, according to the study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a journalist-run group in Washington D.C.

And in all, only 13% of the stories produced were about things that would actually impact the American public if the candidates were elected, such as their ideas, their honesty or how their constituents in the past have been affected.

More than 80% of the stories, in contrast, focused on matters that impact the politicians or parties, such as changes in tactics, who has more money, or internal organizational problems.

Contrary to conventional criticism, the reporting is not particularly framed around the horse race. Nor is it tilted in favor of one candidate over another, including so-called media darling John McCain.

Instead, the reporting is overwhelmingly focused on the internal tactics and strategies of the campaigns-concerns that research suggests people do not care much about and that even the study researchers found numbing to read.

Remarkably less than one percent of the stories-or just two out of 430 examined–explored the candidates’ past records in office in more than a passing reference.

The study examined 430 stories published or aired over two weeks leading up to the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, in five major newspapers and nine television programs on five networks. This was the period when voters were beginning to more seriously focus in on the presidential contest.

Some journalists might counter that the kind of background reporting that is missing was done earlier. While we cannot quantify or confirm this, most evidence suggests that, even if it were true, the public was not yet paying attention. However, the study did capture a time when some papers were doing their big background stories-including three major takeouts in the Washington Post on Bill Bradley’s formative years. Yet this reflects what a small percentage of the mix these pieces represent.

At times, some in the press even sounded resentful of the campaign. Listen to Bryant Gumbel interviewing Hotline editor Chris Crawford January 17 on CBS’s The Early Show:

Gumbel: “I stumbled upon Saturday’s (debate) and it seemed a rather sad show. I mean, here were all the Republican candidates sitting there on a Saturday afternoon answering questions from people in Iowa, and it seemed like, you know, it was just going through the motions.”

Crawford: “Yeah…these debates are sort of like phantom pain…It’s sort of-its gone away, but we still feel it.”

Looking just at the topics with which stories were predominantly concerned, the majority of the stories, 54%, were about political topics, such as fundraising or tactics. A sizable minority, 24%, were ostensibly policy related. Another 11% related to the candidates’ leadership style or health.

But when we looked at how these stories were put together-or framed-around these topics, the coverage takes on a more tactical cast. Only 4% of stories were developed to clearly explore the candidates’ ideas. Only another 3% were developed around the broader theme of their core convictions.

And for all the talk about the importance of character, just 5% of stories were framed around the candidates’ personality or character. Just 4% looked at the candidate’s leadership style.

Overall, the coverage paints a picture not of a contest of ideas between men but of a massive chess game of calculation and calibration in which little seems spontaneous or genuine. And occasionally, the camera turns to the audience for a shot of its reaction.

This comes even though many reporters have called this an unusually issue-oriented campaign. It also comes relatively early in the process, a time when it is still possible to explore the candidates in a larger sense before the dizzying pace of the primaries following Iowa and New Hampshire has begun.

The findings are also striking, given research this year that suggests people do not care to read about internal tactical matters. Rather they say this year they want to know most about the public character of these candidates, including their records, their honesty, and how they connect with people, according to data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.* What’s more, the focus on so-called inside baseball is hardly new, and the political press has vowed in years past to seek better ways of connecting with voters, and making the campaign more relevant. Apparently, even in the early days of the campaign, the press has had difficulty keeping sight of that goal.

The study, which was designed and written by the Project and executed by researchers at Princeton Survey Research Associates, examined stories produced during the week ending January 19 and the week ending December 15. The newspapers studied were the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Orlando Sentinel, the New York Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post. In broadcast, the study looked at ABC World News Tonight, ABC Good Morning America, CBS Evening News, CBS Early Show, NBC Nightly News, NBC Today, CNN The World and the PBS News Hour and Larry King Live.

The sample, while not exhaustive, is an attempt to be representative of the media universe from which the largest number of Americans get their news about the campaign.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and is affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

As for the candidates, the study finds:

  • Attacking a candidate is not the surest way to get coverage. Only 6% of the stories were triggered by a candidate or campaign attacking a rival.
  • Getting more national coverage does not necessarily translate into better electoral results, at least early on. Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes, for example, received almost no individual coverage leading up to Iowa.
  • If politics in part is a battle for control of message, Al Gore fared better than Bill Bradley. The coverage of Bradley focused more on his personality and health than on his much-touted “big ideas.” The coverage of Al Gore, in contrast, was arguably closer to the campaign he wanted to run, paying scant attention to his supposed weak spot-his personality-and emphasizing matters over which he wanted to challenge Bradley-his ideas.
  • Among Republican candidates, John McCain arguably had the most control over his message-in the sense that more of his coverage was candidate driven rather than driven by the press or others.

As for the press, the study finds:

  • Coverage is not predominantly triggered by what the candidates say or do on the stump. It is almost twice as likely to be initiated by decisions in the newsroom to do an analysis or other enterprise piece.
  • In print, the more local the newspaper, the more it covered policy topics. The Orlando Sentinel was the most likely to cover policy, 37% of stories. USA Today was least likely, 18% of stories.
  • The New York Times tends to cover what the candidates say and do more as straight news and then write political analysis stories alongside. The Washington Post, in contrast, tends to initiate its own stories, but focus more of them around the candidates’ characters and policies.

* “Bradley and McCain Bios Count More: Campaign Incidents Have Little Punch, December 16, 1999, The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “Candidate Qualities May Trump Issues in 2000,” The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, October 18, 1999.