October 27, 2004

The Debate Effect

In the closing weeks of the 2004 presidential race, the period dominated by the debates, President George W. Bush has suffered strikingly more negative press coverage than challenger John Kerry, according to a new study released today by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

More than half of all Bush stories studied were decidedly negative in tone (1). By contrast, only a quarter of all Kerry stories were clearly negative.

This is the mirror image of what happened four years ago, when then-Governor Bush benefited from coverage in the closing weeks, particularly from the debates, enjoying twice as many positive stories than his rival Vice President Gore (2). Indeed, the percentage of negative Bush coverage is almost identical to the level of negative Gore coverage four years ago.

In both cases, the penchant of the press to focus on internal campaign matters like tactics, strategy, candidate performance and horse race, seem to be a major factor driving the tone of the coverage. This year the President was battered in the coverage particularly for his performance in the first two debates.

There is a difference this year from 2000, however. Kerry coverage has been markedly less negative-and somewhat more positive–than either candidate received during a similar phase in the 2000 race.

The tactical and performance oriented focus of the press has had another effect as well. The coverage this year has been even less likely than four years ago to describe how campaign events directly affected voters–explaining, for example, the possible implications on citizens of candidate’s policy proposal.

The study this year also included a new component, blogs, examining five of the most popular. Because they are such a distinct universe, they are not included in any of the overall figures about topic, tone or the rest. However, the examination of blogs reveals that they are conspicuously similar to the mainstream press in what they covered, the tone of that coverage and even in the angle writers took, findings that seem to challenge the idea that the blogosphere is changing the kind of media messages people have access to. Rather than an entirely new citizen-oriented media, what blogs may be doing, this suggests, is furthering the growth of opinion news, but in an even more one-sided form than the cable talk shows.

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

Footnotes

(1)When calculating Tone, coders must quantify all the pertinent text that is positive for the Dominant Candidate, as well as all pertinent text that is negative for the Dominant Candidate. Additional weight is given to text within the headline of the story. In any case where the ratio between positive:negative equals or exceeds 2:1, the story is coded as positive tone for the Dominant Figure. Likewise, when the ratio between positive:negative equals or exceeds 1:2 the story is coded as negative tone for the Dominant Figure. All other stories are coded as neutral. In this study, stories determined to be straight news accounts were not coded for Tone.

(2) PEJ conducted a similar study in the final weeks of the 2000 campaign. Please see, “The Last Lap: How the Press Covered the Final Stages of the Presidential Campaign,” October 31, 2000.