October 27, 2004

The Debate Effect

The Major Stories

The Major Stories

The study, our third of the campaign, focused particularly on those stories that were recurring or major themes during the two weeks studied. Out of more than 800 stories studied, we found 15 recurring themes.

The debates were theme No. 1 during the period (40% of stories). Domestic issues such as health care or the economy made up 11%, as did stories about battleground states and other voting issues. Iraq accounted for 9%.

When it came to the treatment of those themes-how journalists developed their stories about them-the coverage became even more tactical and insider oriented. As found in most studies of political coverage, the coverage overwhelmingly focused around the internal politics of campaigning.

How the Media Framed the Campaign
 
All Stories
Political Internals
55%
Straight News
14
Policy
13
"Meta" Issues
9
Candidate Fitness
7
Media Fitness
1
Other
1
Total
100

Again, just 13% of stories were framed around explaining the policy proposals of the candidates or their differences in approach, be it Iraq, the war on terror, taxes, the economy, jobs, stem cell research, health care or any of the other range of foreign and domestic matters.

This, curiously, is almost identical to the percentage we found four years ago. This suggests some habitual or reflexive pattern in the press behavior, a kind of threshold over how policy oriented their coverage will be. Clearly, issues play a different role in a campaign during a war on terror than they did in 2000. While both candidates insist our politics have forever changed, our political journalism in some fundamental way has not.

Instead, the politics of campaigning still dominates what the press covers, accounting, overall, for more than half of the coverage (55%). The bulk of this (19% of stories) assessed how one or both of the candidates performed and the tactics and strategies of the campaigns (12%). The rest was a mix of horse race, the veracity of the campaign and other inside issues.