October 27, 2004

The Debate Effect

Cable News and the NewsHour

To get a sense of how cable news might differ from network news, the study captured the closest either CNN or Fox News comes to offering a signature evening newscast. For Fox this was Britt Hume's program, Fox News with Britt Hume. For CNN it was News Night with Aaron Brown.

Who Network Stories Impacted
 
All Network
Network AM
Network PM
Citizens
10%
8%
12%
Politicians
83
87
79
Interest Groups
4
2
7
Other/NA
2
3
1
*Totals may not add to 100 due to rounding

Although the sample of two programs over two weeks is small, there were some strong distinctions between them worth noting. Even during these two weeks, dominated by debates, the topic choice of the two was quite different. Aaron Brown's News Night mirrored more of what other news outlets did, with the debates far outweighing any other topic. Brit Hume's program on Fox News, on the other hand, was much less debate focused. Instead, more of its coverage was about Iraq and the candidates' daily campaigning and momentum.

Part of the may be due to the timing of the two programs. CNN's News Night airs late, 10 P.M. ET, and overlapped with the debates while Fox News airs at 6 p.m., hours before the debates took place.

The two programs also differed in how they framed stories. This, too, could be partly explained by their topic choices. The vast majority of Aaron Brown stories were framed around political internals, mostly candidate performance. Brit Hume, while still framing more stories around politics than anything else, was more likely than any other outlet, except for PBS, to frame stories around policy. They also offered more of a focus on larger issues such the nature of the electorate and of politics today.

When it came to Kerry versus Bush, the programs were pretty evenly divided in the amount of coverage about each. And when it came to tone, they both looked much more like PBS than like network news or newspapers. Fox News was almost evenly divided among positive, neutral and negative stories. News Night was more neutral in tone, with an even balance between positive and negative.

This apparent neutrality, though, can be deceiving. First, the sample is very small. In the 10 days studied, Brown did just 43 stories in all-and just seven were mostly Kerry and seven were mostly Bush. Hume aired 60-18 Kerry and 14 Bush.

Second, within this small sample, not a single CNN story was both dominated by and positive for President Bush, while the bulk of Fox's positive stories favored Bush and their negative stories concerned Kerry.

As in other media, most of the stories on these two cable programs were comparative-that is they were about both candidates rather than one or the other. In these, as in their candidate specific stories, Brown's show was mostly neutral in tone while Hume's was more evenly distributed across positive, negative and neutral.

These differences are striking, but since the sample is small, something on a larger scale is required to probe the differences between the two channels more generally or even the two programs.

The NewsHour

PBS's nightly newscast makes a point of positioning itself as a different kind of news program than those offered on the networks and cable, The study found that in the last weeks of campaign there were indeed some significant differences in the approach of NewsHour compared with its rivals.

The most significant difference may have come in the way stories were framed. Nearly a quarter (23%) of the stories on the broadcast delved into the substance of the policies the two candidates put forward and attempted to explain them. That is more than twice that of any other outlet except for Fox News.

In almost all cases (94%), the coverage looked at both candidates comparatively. Of that comparative coverage, 59% was neutral (versus 39% on TV overall). The remaining coverage was evenly split between positive and negative.

This more neutral tone may have arisen from the kinds of stories the NewsHour did. The newscast was much more likely to do stories about the candidates "on the stump" and less likely to do stories about polling and momentum.

One other area where the Newshour stood out was in producing stories that discussed events in a way that mostly impacted citizens. More than a quarter of the show's stories (26%) fell into this category, compared, for instance, with 13% of the TV programs overall. The NewsHour's stories, however, were still primarily focused on the impact on politicians, nearly seven times out of ten.