October 27, 2004

The Debate Effect

Bush versus Kerry

What also stands out most in looking at tone is the marked discrepancy between Kerry and Bush. Why have Kerry stories during these critical weeks been more positive and less negative than anything either Bush or Gore saw four years ago, while Bush’s mirror what Gore received?

Is it because Kerry performance in the debates was decidedly superior to Bush’s four years ago? This is something that cannot be measured objectively. No doubt different observers will attribute the tone of the coverage to different factors depending on their personal attitude toward the press and the candidates. Some will likely suspect the press is liberal and biased in favor of Kerry. Others who are not fond of the President will likely believe that Kerry outshined Bush this year much more decisively than Bush did Gore in 2000. Answering this is beyond the scope of this study and would require a larger examination of tone throughout the campaign.

As the debates began to dominate coverage, journalists tended to write more stories that looked at the two candidates comparatively, rather than writing stories that were predominantly about Bush or Kerry alone. These comparative stories eventually made up 57% of all the coverage.

Still, even in the comparative stories, the President tended not to fare as well as Kerry. These stories were twice as likely to be positive for Kerry as for Bush (11% versus 5% respectively). Conversely, they were more than twice as likely to be negative for Bush as for Kerry (12% versus 3% respectively.) Twenty-one percent were negative towards both. Another 37% of these stories were neutral, about the same as coverage overall.

A few other differences in the candidates’ coverage are worth noting as well. Aside from the debates, Kerry-dominated stories tended to be about media and entertainment affairs such as the airing of the controversial film, Stolen Honor (18%), domestic affairs (13%) and day-to-day campaigning (13%).

Bush stories were more about Iraq (23%) and domestic issues (13%).

The amount of coverage about each of the candidates was fairly equal (20% were primarily about Kerry, 18% mostly about Bush and the rest were a mix) but clearly the treatment was not.