October 27, 2004

The Debate Effect

Newspapers

Newspapers

Looking specifically at print, newspapers tended to cover a wider range of themes than other media studied.

The debates made up 34% of the stories, while domestic issues made up another 12%, as did coverage of battleground states and voter issues. On network television, by contrast, debates made up nearly half of all stories during the two weeks, while on the signature cable newscasts, they made even slightly more.

Major Story Themes in Newspapers
 
Total NPs
National NPs
Regional NPs
Iraq/Terror
9%
9%
9%
Other Foreign Policy
4
3
4
Domestic Issues
12
11
13
Battleground/Voter Issues
12
10
16
Cand Momentum/Stump
9
8
9
Debates
34
36
29

1st

13
14
12

2nd

6
6
6

3rd

7
8
3

VP

8
8
8
Media/Entertainment
8
7
10
Advertising
3
4
1
VP's/1st Lady
3
3
3
General Musings
4
5
2
Other
4
5
2
*Totals may not add to 100 due to rounding

Even with this broader range of themes, however, newspapers-like other media-still framed the news largely through a tactical, insider lens.

Fully 43% of all stories focused on these internal political matters, though this was the lowest of any medium studied. Only 16% of the stories focused on the candidates' policy proposals or ideas. Another 17% were straight news accounts, describing events in such a way that no particular thematic focus predominated.

How Newspapers Framed the Race
 
All NPs
National NPs
Regional NPs
Political Internals
43%
47%
34%
Straight News
17
13
28
Policy
16
16
15
"Meta" Issues
12
12
13
Candidate Fitness
11
12
8
Media Fitness
1
1
1
Other/NA
0
0
1
*Totals may not add to 100 due to rounding

As in other media, the focus on campaign internals was especially pronounced when it came to coverage of the debates. A mere 1% of the stories in newspapers focused on the candidates' policy proposals, while 84% of the stories were focused around campaign internals-who won, who lost, the impact on strategy and assessments of candidate performance. Twelve percent were straight news accounts.

Who Newspaper Stories Impacted

Given this insider approach, even more than four years ago, newspapers were written in a way that mostly impacted politicians rather than citizens. Roughly two-thirds (67%) of all stories are developed in a way that primarily impacts politicians, an eight percentage point increase over 2000. Citizens, on the other hand, were primarily impacted in just a quarter of the stories (26%), down from 32% in 2000. Interest groups accounted for another 6%.

Who Newspaper Stories Impacted
 
All NPs
National NPs
Regional NPs
Citizens
26%
24%
31%
Politicians
67
68
64
Interest Groups
6
6
5
Other/NA
1
2
0
*Totals may not add to 100 due to rounding.

Despite these drops, newspapers remained the medium most likely to write stories in ways that primarily focused on the impact on citizens.

Regional papers, incidentally, were slightly more geared toward citizens, but not by much.

Coverage and Tone

Newspapers tended toward negativity more than any media studied. Newspaper coverage overall was more than twice as likely to be negative as positive in tone. Close to half of all stories (46%) were clearly critical of the candidates, while only 21% were positive. Roughly a third, 34% were neutral.

Tone of Newspaper Coverage (including Editorials/Op-Eds)
 
All NPs
National NPs
Regional NPs
Positive
20%
19%
23%
Neutral
35
35
34
Negative
46
45
43
*Totals may not add to 100 due to rounding

This held steady across national and regional papers.

These figures are roughly comparable to the similar study of coverage four years ago, when 53% of newspaper stories negative, 19% positive and 28% neutral.

Interestingly, news coverage in newspapers was just as likely to be overwhelmingly interpretative toward one side or the other as were op-eds and editorials. The numbers, indeed, are almost identical, with only a third of news columns or editorials being neutral.

These findings are likely only to fuel growing concerns among journalists and the public about interpretiveness and even bias in the news columns.

A mid-October survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found a higher percentage of voters than four years ago feel that the press coverage has been unfair to one campaign or the other (5).

The story selection during the critical period studied was evenly divided between the Bush and Kerry tickets–20% largely about Bush, and an equal amount largely focused on Kerry. The majority of stories, 56%, were about both candidates.

Who Was Covered in Newspapers (inculding Editorials/Op-Eds)
 
Total NPs
National NPs
Regional NPS
Bush
20%
19%
24
Kerry
20
22
18
Both
56
57
53
Other
4
2
5
Total
100
100
100

But, that is where equality comes to an end.

President Bush's newspaper coverage was more than twice as likely to be negative than his opponent's. Nearly seven-out-of-ten stories principally about Bush (68%) were critical in tone. That is more than double than the 26% of Kerry stories that were negative.

Only 9% of Bush newspaper stories were positive. Meanwhile, while three times as many, 29% of stories about Kerry, were positive.

Tone of Newspaper Coverage of Kerry and Bush (including Editorials/Op-Eds)
 
Kerry
Bush
Positive
29%
9%
Neutral
45
23
Negative
26
68
Total
100
100

Some might imagine that this sharply critical tone toward Bush would be coming largely on the opinion pages, in so-called op-ed columns and editorials. Not so. When all op-eds and editorials are removed, and the study looks only at reportage, the numbers hardly change at all. The news coverage was just as negative, and harsh about the President, as the column and editorializing.

So what does account for this negativity?

One possible explanation may lie in the topics newspapers wrote on for each candidate. The largest number of Bush stories (22%) concerned the debates, a subject most observers felt did not go favorably for the President. Next came Iraq (20%) and domestic issues (16%).

Dominant Theme in Candiate-Focused Stories All Newspapers
 
All
Kerry
Bush
Political Internals
43%
26%
38
Straight News
17
28
18
Policy Explained
16
18
15
Meta Issues
12
6
4
Candidate Fitness
11
19
22
Media Fitness
1
1
1
Other
0
1
1
*Totals may not add to 100 due to rounding

Stories mostly centered around Kerry, on the other hand, were more likely to be about Kerry on the stump (14%) and the role of the media (18%), particularly the brouhaha over Kerry documentaries (both the positive documentary, "Going Up River," and Sinclair Broadcasting's intention to air an anti-Kerry documentary, "Stolen Honor").

Newspapers also tended to frame stories about the two candidates a little differently, which may have been a factor. A higher percentage of Kerry stories had no particular thematic focus but largely described events of the day. Fully 28% of Kerry stories were these "straight news" accounts, compared with 18% for Bush.

Bush coverage was more clearly thematic, with discussion of tactics, strategy and candidate performance standing out. Fully 38% of Bush-dominated stories focused on these matters, versus 26% for Kerry stories. Beyond that, the focus of coverage of the two candidates was quite similar.

 

(5) Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, "Voters Impressed with Campaign," survey conducted October 15 to October 19, 2004, released October 25, 2004, (1,568 adults across the nation).