The Debate Effect
How the Press Covered the Pivotal Period
Unlike newspaper coverage, which was heavily negative and much more so about Bush than Kerry, network news gave viewers the more positive light on the candidates. Nearly four-in-ten stories (38%) carried a positive tone about one or both of the candidates. Just 28% were negative and 34% were neutral.
The positive tilt came more from the morning shows than evening. Forty-four percent of morning show coverage was positive versus just 24% that was negative. The evening news, on the other hand, was pretty evenly split among positive (32%), negative (33%) and neutral (36%)
As in newspapers, the coverage was pretty evenly divided between the two candidates with 18% primarily about Kerry, 14% primarily about Bush and most, 68%, about both.
However, Bush still got the worst of it. Stories primarily about the President were more than three times as likely to be negative than were stories mostly about Kerry (52% Bush versus 17% Kerry).
Negative Bush stories also outweighed positive ones. Only 15% of Bush stories on TV cast him in a clearly positive light. The largest number, 33%, were neutral.
Kerry fared far better. Indeed, his coverage was more than twice as likely to be positive during this period as negative. Fully 57% of stories primarily about Kerry were positive and another 26% were neutral.
Most of the network TV stories were not solely about Bush or Kerry but discussed both candidates. While these stories tended to be more neutral than stories about primarily one candidate or the other, even here there was a pattern of Kerry coming out better. In all, 11% of these stories were clearly negative about Bush, versus 4% for Kerry. Likewise, 16% were positive about Kerry, versus just 7% about Bush.
Are there clear explanations for the more positive tone on the networks than in print? Some might guess the compression of television has something to do with it: it is hard to fit multiple sources into a minute-long TV story that would tilt things one way or the other. But lack of time may not explain it. For one, stories were just as likely to be neutral in TV as in print. Second, both the 30 minute evening news programs and the longer two-hour morning shows were equally positive in tone. The preponderance of TV stories, as in print, focused on candidate performance, tactics and horse race as well. For whatever reason, network TV news found more than others to report that was positive.
Major TV Story Themes
During these two weeks in October, the story was clearly the debates, but the morning shows weighed in more heavily on them than did the evening newscasts. In all, 59% percent of morning show election coverage during these two weeks concerned the debates, compared with 33% of evening. There is some logic to this since the debates took place at 9 P.M. ET, after the evening news. So it was still relatively fresh news at 7 a.m. then next morning but much more stale by 6 P.M.
What else made it into the evening news election line up? Domestic issues accounted for 18% of the coverage and Iraq for another 10%. One reason, perhaps, is that by the next evening, in the compression of these final weeks, there was something new to report-the candidate on the stump the day after the debate.
How Network News Framed the Race and Who Those Stories Impacted
Network news stood out for focusing even more on inside baseball than most other media studied. In all, the vast majority of network stories were focused around the candidate's performance, campaign tactics and horserace (73% overall).
As might be expected from the heavy tendency to report on political internals, network news has moved even more in the direction of reporting on matters that effected politicians over citizens. The vast majority of the coverage, 83% of all stories, primarily impacted politicians-nearly a 20% increase over 2000. Just 10% mostly impacted citizens.