November 20, 2008

How the News Media Covered Religion in the 2008 General Election

Methodology

This report is based on additional analysis of content aggregated and coded for PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index (NCI).

The NCI is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. It examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets in five media sectors, including newspapers, online, network TV, cable TV and radio. The findings are released in a weekly NCI report. All coding is conducted in-house by PEJ’s staff of researchers continuously throughout the year. The complete methodology of the weekly NCI can be found at http://www.journalism.org/about_news_index/methodology.

Main Universe of Stories: This report is based on NCI coding from June 1, 2008, through October 15, 2008. All stories in which religious issues were a significant factor were isolated and further analyzed to locate the role of religion in campaign coverage in four and a half months of news – spanning the time the general election formally commenced to the date of the final presidential debate.

This resulted in a total of 7,592 stories focused on the presidential campaign out of a total of 26,113 stories coded for this period: 584 newspaper stories; 567 online stories; 1,592 network television stories; 3,726 stories on cable news; and 1,123 stories from radio programs.

To ensure that all relevant stories were identified and captured, PEJ researchers began by identifying all stories that were primarily about “presidential bids for 2008,” as labeled in the “big story” category. Big stories are particular events in the news that extend over a period of time and are featured in multiple news outlets during the time period under study. For the 4.5-month time period studied, this resulted in 7,592 stories.

Then, to narrow that universe down to stories specifically addressing religion and the campaign, the study took an additional step. All campaign storylines—termed “sub-storylines”—which were focused on religious issues in the campaign (a total of 16 in all) were extracted for more in-depth analysis.

These sub-storylines included: “Obama Muslim Rumors,” “Sarah Palin Family/Personal Issues,” “Rick Warren Civil Forum,” “Abortion as an Issue,” “Candidates Reach Out to Religious Voters,” “James Dobson’s Obama Comments,” “Obama Leaves Trinity Church,” “John McCain’s Relationship with John Hagee,” “Rev. Michael Pfleger Comments,” “Obama’s Relationship with Jeremiah Wright,” and “Pastors Preach Politics from the Pulpit,” “New Yorker Cover Controversy,” “Same-Sex Marriage as an Issue,” “Stem-Cell Research as an Issue,” “Obama’s ‘Bitter’ Comment,” and “Dali Lama Meets with McCain.”

This process resulted in a total of 283 stories: 23 newspaper stories; 26 online stories; 46 network television stories; 124 stories on cable news; and 64 stories from radio programs.

A previous report, which analyzed religion coverage in the primaries by assessing how stories were framed using the “broad story topic” and “presidential campaign topic” variables, indicated that a focus on the political process made up 81% of coverage. The rest comprised myriad substantive issues, including religion, which made up only 2%.

Although the current study uses a different variable as its chief measure, “sub-storyline,” the “broad story topic” and “presidential campaign topic” variables yield the following results: 67% of the coverage focused on the political process between June 1 and October 15, including the horse race. Stories framed as religion received 2% of the coverage.

Finally, in an effort to analyze the ways in which individual candidates received different religion coverage, the lead newsmaker variable was used. If 50% or more of a given story is about one person, that individual is credited as the lead newsmaker.

As a result, the study included stories devoted primarily to religion and the campaign:

  • On the front page of newspapers
  • In the entirety of commercial network evening newscasts
  • The first 30 minutes of network morning news, the PBS evening news, NPR’s Morning Edition, and all cable programs
  • The top 5 stories on each website at the time of capture

The basic NCI codebook codes for topic at three different levels, and also includes data coded, Story ID number, story date, source, broadcast start time, broadcast story start timecode, headline, story word count, placement/prominence, story format, story describer, and broadcast story ending timecode, geographic focus and campaign mention. The complete methodology for the weekly NCI has further details on the coding system and inter-coder reliability (http://www.journalism.org/about_news_index/methodology).

Outlets Examined

Newspapers (Sunday to Friday)
– The New York Times every day
Coded two out of these four every day
– The Washington Post
– The Los Angeles Times
– USA Today
– The Wall Street Journal
Coded two out of these four every day
– The Philadelphia Inquirer
– The Chicago Tribune
– The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
– The San Francisco Chronicle
Coded two out of these four every day
– The New Hampshire Union-Leader
– MetroWest Daily News
– The Gazette (Colorado Springs)
– The Modesto Bee

Web sites (Monday to Friday)
– CNN.com
– Yahoo News
– MSNBC.com
– Google News
– AOL News

Network TV (Monday to Friday)
Morning shows
– ABC – Good Morning America
– CBS – Early Show
– NBC – Today
Evening news
– ABC – World News Tonight
– CBS – CBS Evening News
– NBC – NBC Nightly News
– PBS – NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

Cable TV (Monday to Friday)

Daytime (2 to 2:30 p.m.) – coded two out of three every day
– CNN
– Fox News
– MSNBC
Nighttime CNN – coded three out of the four every day
– Lou Dobbs Tonight
– Situation Room (6 p.m.)
– CNN Election Center
– Anderson Cooper 360
Nighttime Fox News – coded three out of the four every day
– Special Report With Brit Hume
– Fox Report With Shepard Smith
– O’Reilly Factor
– Hannity & Colmes
Nighttime MSNBC – coded two out of the four every day
– Race for the White House
– Hardball (7 p.m.)
– Countdown With Keith Olbermann
– Verdict With Dan Abrams (until Aug. 21)
– Convention coverage (Aug. 22-Sept. 8)
– The Rachel Maddow Show (after Sept. 8)

Radio (Monday to Friday)
News Radio
Headlines – every day
– ABC Radio headlines at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
– CBS Radio headlines at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
– NPR Morning Edition every day
Talk radio
– Rush Limbaugh every other day
One out of two additional conservatives each day:
– Sean Hannity
– Michael Savage
One out of two liberals each day:
– Ed Schultz
– Randi Rhodes