October 27, 2004

The Debate Effect

Positive Versus Negative

Once again, we saw in the coverage a tendency on the part of the news media toward negativity, although slightly less than four years ago.

Only 14% of stories were produced as straight news accounts of events, though even some of those had a clear tone. Of the rest, which had a clear thematic or narrative approach, 38% contained at least twice as many negative statements about the candidates as positive ones. Just 26% were clearly positive.

The press was even more negative when covering policy (55%) and the candidates’ characters (47%) than when covering political internal matters such as horse race (36%).

The tendency toward negative tone stands out because it suggests the press is prone to act as an enabler, accomplice or conduit for negative campaigning.

The irony, at least from the standpoint of making coverage appealing to readers and viewers, is that most citizens claim they are sick and tired of negative politics. Apparently journalists, like politicians, either believe that despite what citizens say, negative politics works and thus the attack lines are important news. Or perhaps at minimum journalists themselves simply can’t resist the attack lines.

For a story to be considered anything but neutral, the positive or negative statements within it must outnumber each other by at least two-to-one. For example, in a story assessing how a candidate performed in a debate, there would have to be six clearly negative statements about the candidate’s performance for every three positive ones for the story to be considered negative in tone.