October 27, 2004

The Debate Effect

Winners and Losers

Overall, 59% of Bush dominated stories were clearly negative in nature–meaning they contained statements that were at least two-to-one critical of the President. That is an almost identical mirror image of the 56% of decidedly negative Gore stories four years ago.

The only difference is that just 25% of Kerry stories were decidedly negative. In 2000, when Bush received more favorable coverage, nearly half of Bush stories during the debate phase still carried a decidedly negative cast.

When it came to positive coverage, just over a third (34%) of Kerry-dominated stories was clearly favorable, while only 14% of stories about the President were. Bush's numbers here are again almost identical to Gore's in 2000.

As for Kerry, once again his positive numbers are higher than how Bush fared four years ago, when the then Texas governor enjoyed 24% percent positive stories.

Tone of Media Coverage of Bush and Kerry
 
All stories
Bush stories
Kerry stories
Positive
26%
14%
34%
Neutral
37
27
41
Negative
38
59
25
*Totals may not add to 100 due to rounding.

 

Tone of Media Coverage of Bush and Gore in 2000
 
All stories
Gore stories
Bush stories
Positive
18%
13%
24%
Neutral
31
31
27
Negative
51
56
49
Total
100
100
100
Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism, "The Last Lap," October 31, 2000.

The study's findings may add fuel to speculation, depending on the outcome of the election, of the influence of debates and of the media generally, and in some quarters, claims of media bias toward Kerry.

Whatever the case, the study reinforces the sense that the press, at least the political press, has become highly interpretative and even judgmental in its approach.

The study, designed and written by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and coded for the Project by researchers at Princeton Survey Research Associates, examined 817 stories from 13 publications, and cable and network programs from October 1 through 14, 2004, on the eve of the first debate and the day following the last one. Included were: four newspapers–The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The Cleveland Plain Dealer; seven network news programs–the three evening news programs, three morning shows and PBS' Newshour; two cable programs: CNN's News Night with Aaron Brown and Fox News with Britt Hume. In addition to the main sample, five blogs were examined: Eschaton, Andrew Sullivan, Instapundit, Talking Points and The Note.

Among other key findings:

  • Political coverage has become highly interpretative. Only 14% of stories simply recounted events in a straightforward factual manner. The great majority were more thematic. Of these, about a quarter were positive (25%), the rest evenly split between neutral and negative.

  • Far from a new kind of citizen journalism, the most popular blogs took an inside baseball approach to assessing the debates, (70%), echoing the main stream media. In the contentious vice-presidential debate, not a single posting dealt with policy matters.
  • An even smaller percentage of stories than four years ago made clear how campaign news affected or connected to citizens (only 20%). Debate stories were even less likely to be connected to citizens (8%).
  • Despite what many consider striking contrasts offered by the two candidates, just over one in ten stories (13%) were framed around explaining issues, 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. Of those, Iraq dominated.

  • The News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS stands out among both television and newspapers both for being more neutral in tone than other news outlets and more oriented to the explaining policy proposals than most television programs.

The findings are also influenced by this year's peculiar calendar. The combination of a late Republican convention, a late Labor Day, and early Election Day, and four debates over two-weeks, compressed everything. Before the implication of one event could be digested, the candidates and the press were already focused on the next. The debate phase then framed virtually everything about the period we are in now, the final two weeks.

The debates represented a moment when voters could hear the candidates at some length directly and indeed were perceived to have changed voters' attitudes about the candidates and their policies (3).

Yet the compressed calendar may have reinforced the tendency of the press to ignore the policy aspects of the debates and highlight instead the tactics, particularly to see the debates as performances (43%), and as a reflection of campaign strategy (10%). This was particularly true of the first two debates.

 

(3) CBS News Poll, "Uncommitted Voters Pick Kerry," October 13, 2004.