February 3, 2000

In the Public Interest?

What the Study Examined

The study, the first of several the Project will provide through the course of the campaign, examined two weeks of coverage, enough to be sizable and still allow the results to be timely. Future studies will focus on other areas as well, such as the Internet and on additional cable outlets, though these reach far fewer people in general.

The goal of this study was to identify what was covered, how, and to whom it related.

To do so, the study broke each story down three ways. First, it identified what each story was about, topic. Then it noted how each story was put together (Was it a straight news account, or was it framed around political concerns like tactics, around policy, personality, etc.?)

Third, who was affected by what the story was about, or who did it impact? Was it citizens? Politicians? Interest groups? Or a combination?

In addition to these measurements, the study also noted two other features for each story.

The first was what initiated the story, its trigger: Was it something a candidate said or did? Something from his campaign surrogates? An outsider? Or was it press enterprise?

Finally, the study measured the tone of each story. Within its frame, was the story predominantly positive, negative or neutral? In order to fall into the positive or negative category, 50% more of the stories had to fall clearly on one side of that line or the other.

Topic

Even just looking at what subjects were covered, the majority of stories (54%) concerned strictly political matters-polls, tactics, fundraising, etc.

Tactical maneuvering was the most common political topic, accounting for 21% of all stories, followed by candidate performance (9%). Polls and momentum was the next most common political topic (7%), followed by stories about the political calendar (4%) and advertisements (4%).

On the surface, about a quarter of the coverage (24%) was nominally about policy. Another 11% concerned the personal background of the candidates. Fewer than one in ten (7%) concerned voters. And just a fraction (1%), concerned the candidates records.

When it came to policy alone, social issues were the most common (7% of all stories or 31 in all), followed by taxes (5% or 20 stories), health care (3% or 11 stories) and both campaign finance reform (2%) and military issues (2%)

Frame

But when we looked to see how these topics were treated-or framed–we found that in the writing or production process many of these stories were refocused so that they became predominantly about something else.

Consider how, on December 14th's Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos frames John McCain's opposition to federal subsidies for the alternative fuel called ethanol. "It's what a friend of mine called a 'candor pander,' and what he's doing here is hoping that this straight talk, even though it would end up sacrificing the state of Iowa, will appeal to the rest of the country where it fits in with his point that special interests have too much influence in Washington."

The inverted pyramid, or straight news account, remains the most common way of telling a story. But it is hardly the dominant one. This is a story in which the news is presented not in any thematic way, but as a traditional description of what happened, offering who, what, when, where, why, and how in rough order of their importance. In all, 38% of stories were written as straight news.

Interestingly, straight news accounts are the primary way in which the press writes about candidates' ideas. Four out of ten straight news accounts were about policy topics.

On the other hand, reporters apparently believe that policy stories are a turn off. When they develop stories about a policy oriented event into something other than a straight news account of the facts, they rarely choose to explicitly explore policy. While policy made up 24% of the topics covered, only 4% of stories were framed as explorations of those ideas.

After straight news accounts, the next most common way of telling a story was to build it around strategy and tactics. Fully 22%, nearly a quarter of all stories, were told within a tactical frame.

Another 9% of stories were told as horse race stories, who was moving up or down.

A significant number of stories, 12%, were crafted in a way that they told us more about larger issues involving the political system, such as the concerns of voters, or the changing role of primaries.

Yet relatively few stories were developed in a way that delved into the candidate himself. For all the talk about character this year, just 5% were framed around a candidates' personality and temperament. Four percent looked at a candidate's leadership style. And 3% considered the health of a candidate. In a way, the character of each of the candidates is lost in the focus on tactics and strategy. Tactics becomes the motive for everything. Even the candidates' beliefs take on an air of insincerity and calculation.

Consider this Washington Post story December 15 about George Bush differing with John McCain on finance reform and taxes. Bush's differences, it said, are "a sort of political judo….By highlighting points on which McCain strays from party orthodoxy, Bush is trying to build a firewall around New Hampshire-in the Iowa caucuses a week before the Granite State primary, for example, and in the South Carolina primary soon after."

Tone For all that the press is often charged with negativity and cynicism, there is no proof that the coverage is biased toward one party over another, one candidate over another, or is relentlessly negative. Overall, fully 44% of the coverage was neutral in tone toward the dominant figure in the story. An evenly balanced 24% was positive, and 24% negative. The numbers were virtually identical when it came to coverage of Republicans or of Democrats.

Speculativeness

The study also tried to find out how much of the coverage involved journalists speculating on the future. To do so, we looked at each story to see if it was mostly about things had already happened or things yet to come which the journalist could not know for sure. For example, did a story about tactics mostly discuss the latest move by a candidate or did it speculate as to whether the journalist thought those tactics would lead the candidate to a victory in New Hampshire?

We found that the press was not particularly speculative. Less than two in ten stories were mostly speculative in nature. A full 84% were not. What's more, this was true for both print and broadcast.

Frame and Tone The tone of stories tended to be influenced by how the reporter framed the story. When reporters develop stories around policy, they apparently take pains to avoid making judgments. Policy stories were much more likely than others-including even straight news accounts-to have a neutral tone, 63%. Straight news accounts were neutral 56% of the time.

When reporters developed stories around political matters, however, they apparently feel more confident making or seeking out normative judgments. Only 30% of the tactics and strategy stories were deemed neutral, as were 26% of the horse race stories.

Impact

The study also tried to isolate whether the coverage was relevant or not to citizens. One way of doing that is to note who is primarily affected or impacted by the concerns that the story is talking about. We called this measurement impact. Did the story affect citizens? Was it talking about things that only impacted the candidates and their parties? Did it affect specific interest groups? Or did the story touch on how several of these constituencies might be affected?

The topic of the story does not necessarily determine its impact. Even a story about internal political matters could be written in a way that impacts citizens, if the story made clear that how a campaign is run reveals how a candidate would govern. Few stories we saw attempted to make this link between tactics and their relevance. An overwhelming amount of the coverage (82%) dealt with things that mainly affected only the candidates, their campaigns and campaign workers. This involved such matters as who was winning or losing, their strategies, fundraising, etc.

Only a little more than one in ten stories (13%) dealt with matters that affected mainly citizens, subgroups of citizens, or even subgroups in a given state or county. These are such things as a candidates record, his honesty, his policy ideas, his ethical background, etc.

A small percentage of the coverage (4%) mainly affected specific interest groups, such as the National Rifle Association or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Remarkably, only 1% of all the stories were written in such a way that they addressed how multiple stakeholders would be impacted. A story need not just impact one group, citizens versus politicians. It can be written in ways that show how different groups, or what some call "stakeholders," are affected. A story about Bill Bradley's health care plan, for instance, could explore both how he was being attacked for it and who it covered versus his rival's plan. Again, however, few stories were written in a way to make clear their relevance to more than one constituency.

Overall, the findings here suggest that journalists may want to be far more conscious of crafting stories in ways that, regardless of the general topic, make their relevance clear and address the concerns of voters, not just insiders. In that sense, this idea of writing a story with a mind toward its impact may be a way of helping journalists cover matters they consider newsworthy and making sure that their coverage remains relevant to the largest possible audience.

Frame and Impact

One way of doing this is to consider how stories are framed.

The most popular story frames identified in this study tend to leave citizens out.

For instance, 95% of the stories framed around tactics and strategy impacted politicians. This was also true of every single story framed around horse race.

Stories framed around the political system as a whole or the nature of politics, however, were much more likely to be about things that affected voters. Fully 35% of these stories had citizen impact, though 54% still related overwhelmingly to politicians.

Journalists were most likely to write stories that impacted citizens when they developed a topic by exploring the policy issue involved, which, as mentioned above, they did little of in this study. Still, 50% of stories framed around policy were written in such a way that they made clear the impact on citizens. A quarter of these stories impacted specific interest groups and another quarter impacted candidates.

The Watchdog Role

Playing watchdog–by scrutinizing the veracity of rhetoric or advertisements or conducting investigations–has not made up a large percentage of the press' role, at least in the period studied. All told, only nine of the 430 stories were of a watchdog nature. There were no investigative reports. Most of the rest were ad watches, more than half of which were published by one news organization, the Washington Post.