October 31, 2000

The Last Lap

Overview

In the culminating weeks of the 2000 presidential race, the press coverage was strikingly negative, and Vice President Al Gore has gotten the worst of it, according to a new study released today by the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

Gore’s coverage was decidedly more negative, more focused on the internal politics of campaigning and had less to do with citizens than did his Republican rival.

In contrast, George W. Bush was twice as likely as Gore to get coverage that was positive in tone. Coverage of the governor was also more issue-oriented and more likely to be directly connected to citizens.

These are some of the key findings of a major new study of press coverage in newspapers, television and on the Internet during key weeks in September and October.

Overall, nearly a quarter of all Bush dominated stories were clearly positive in nature, while that was true of only 13% of Gore stories, according to the study. Bush was also less likely to receive negative coverage than Gore.

 

Tone of Coverage for Gore & Bush
Positive 13% 24%
Neutral 31 27
Negative 56 49
Total 100 100

One reason for the hard time for Gore may be the penchant of the press to focus coverage around strategy and tactics.

The study produced, for the Committee by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Princeton Survey Research Associates, examined 1,149 stories from 17 news publications, programs and websites.

The study captured a time that some observers consider one of the most substantive moments of the campaign, the period of the debates. Yet the press assessed the debates not on the basis of where the candidates stood or their character but overwhelmingly through a tactical lens—especially as performances. Roughly seven-in-ten debate stories were about performance (53%) or strategy (12%). As the debates went on, coverage of political themes increased and coverage of issues and character declined.

In particular, stories assessing the debates tended to focus on performance (53%) and strategy (12%) rather than on the philosophical differences between the candidates. Fewer than one-in-ten were about their policy differences, perhaps fueling the perceptions among voters that there is little difference between them.

This may have particularly hurt Gore, the more experienced debater and the one expected to get the best of the encounters. In short, the data makes clear the press was playing the expectations game.

The study examined the weeks of September 23-29, October 7-13, and October 14-20, which included the run up to the first debate coverage before, during and after the second and third debates. It also included assessments of the vice presidential face off.

Among other key findings:

  • Neutrality has gone by the wayside in coverage of Campaign 2000. Less than a third of all stories were neutral in tone. The majority (51%) was negative, and the press was almost three times more likely to be negative than positive.1 
  • The press did write stories in a way that showed how the topic would affect citizens a good deal more than it did during the primary season. In all, 27% of stories were written in a way that made the connection to citizens clear, compared with 17% during an earlier study this year. That number, however, may still strike the electorate as frustratingly low. 
  • For all the talk of health care & elderly and taxes as deciding issues of the campaign, these two themes made up only 11% of all the stories studied. 
  • There was remarkably little coverage of the character of the candidates—only 13%—even though polling research suggests that these were one of the reasons so many voters were either undecided or soft in their support of Gore and Bush. 
  • Internet stories, especially those produced just for web, tended to be far less neutral—and much more negative—than traditional broadcast or print news organizations.

1 These tallies do not include roughly 30% of the stories, which were strictly factual accounts of breaking.