How the News Media Covered Religion in the 2008 General Election
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:
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).
Newspapers (Sunday to Friday)
Web sites (Monday to Friday)
Network TV (Monday to Friday)
Radio (Monday to Friday)