October 31, 2000

The Last Lap

The Debate

The number one story during these critical weeks was the debates. Seven-in-ten stories assessing the debates focused on political matters, rather than where the candidates differed on issues, where they proposed to take the country, or questions of character, record and veracity.

In particular, the majority of the pre-and-post-debate analysis (53%) was framed around the candidates' performance. Another 12% were framed as tactics and strategy.

Fewer than one-in-ten of these stories considered policy differences between the two candidates; 3% were framed around the veracity of a campaign and a mere 1% focused on where the candidate would take the country.

Interestingly, just 14% of these pre-and-post debate stories were straight news accounts, outlining what the candidates said.

 

Frames of Debate Analysis
Political Internals 69%
  cand. Performance 53
  tactics & strategy 12
  campaign veracity 3
  other 1
Policy Explained 11
  policy diff's 9
  ideological priorities 1
  relations w/ world leaders 1
Meta Issues 4
Cand. Fitness 2
Straight News 14
Total 100%

What is the result of framing the coverage this way? The vast majority of the debate stories (74%) were written in a way that mostly impacted candidates and their campaigns. Interestingly, they were twice as likely to impact Gore's candidacy as they were to impact Bush's.

Citizens were left out. Only 15% of the debate stories were written in ways that made clear the impact on citizens.

When the press decided to write debate stories mostly about one candidate or another, that candidate was usually Gore. In all 20% of debate stories were Gore-dominated pieces, versus 9% for Bush. Either Gore's performance, or the higher expectations of his abilities, led the press to give him increased scrutiny.