July 27, 2000

A Question of Character

Overview

If presidential elections are a battle for control of message through the media, George W. Bush has had the better of it on the question of character than Albert Gore Jr., according to a new study of media coverage leading up to the Republican convention.

But in age of skepticism and fragmented communications, the public may not be getting—or believing—the message.

There is also a hint that some of the worst of the press coverage of Gore’s character may have come and gone, while coverage of Bush lately has become more skeptical.

These are some of the findings from an unusual study of the character issue in the 2000 presidential election, conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists, and twinned with a survey of public attitudes of the candidates conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.1 The study examined five weeks of stories in newspapers, television, radio and the Internet that spanned the five months between February and June.

In general, the press has been far more likely to convey that Bush is a different kind of Republican—a “compassionate conservative,” a reformer, bipartisan—than to discuss Al Gore’s experience, knowledge or readiness for the office, according to the study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

Fully 40% of the assertions about Bush were that he was a different kind of politician, one of Bush’s key campaign themes.

Yet the public associates these bipartisan qualities more with the vice president than with the Texas governor.

In contrast, only 14% of the time did the press assert the message that Gore has wanted to convey, about his experience and competence. Despite that, the public has this impression of Gore anyway.

The media have not particularly pushed the idea that Bush has gotten where he is largely on family connections. Nonetheless, this is one of the most dominant impressions the public has about the likely GOP nominee.

In short, when it comes to character, what the press is saying about the candidates is hardly dictating what the public thinks. What is less clear is whether this is because the public is not paying attention, or because they bring their own independent judgments to the information the press is conveying.

1 Voters Unmoved by Media Characterizations of Bush & Gore, July 27, 2000. All references to public attitudes in this report are based on the data in this survey.