The Debate Effect
How the Press Covered the Pivotal Period
In addition to the main study, we looked at the coverage of the newest animal in the campaign 2004 news media - political blogs. We examined postings from five prominent blogs over the course of the two weeks to see how they reflected the coverage of the mainstream media. In all, 521 posting were coded.
Overall, the blogs seemed tuned into many of the same areas as the mainstream press, though often with a different spin attached. The coverage in the time we examined was largely about the debates and, within that, about the performance of each candidate.
The study tracked four personal blogs, selected from the top-ten blogs according to Truth Laid Bear's Blogosphere Ecosystem, which ranks blogs according to the number of links received per day (a measure of their influence on the political blogging community as a whole); they are also among the most-viewed political blogs, each averaging more than 100,000 visits per day. These four blogs were selected for a mix of ideology and approach. In addition, the study examined ABC News' daily blog, "The Note," to study a political blog by a mainstream news organization.
The Note: The ABC News Political unit's free version of the Washington Hotline is not really a blog in the common use of the word. It is set up as a summary of political news from around the country that began as an internal memo before debuting as a blog in January of 2002. It has less politicizing or opinionating and instead tries to explain where the political coverage and political thinking is headed. It is a popular example of how a mainstream media operation approaches blogging.
Eschaton: As of October, this left-leaning opinion journal run by Duncan Black, an economist based in Philadelphia, had the most traffic of all the blogs we studied. Launched in April 2002, it is overtly liberal and seems to relish the chance to jump into the fray. Entries are often responses to allegations put forward by the right. It seems more reactive than other blogs, following the to and fro of the campaign and also giving voice to other smaller blogs.
Andrew Sullivan: The former editor of the New Republic, Sullivan was already a well-known opinion-journalist when he launched his blog in October of 2000. Though once editor of a historically Democrat-leaning magazine, Sullivan has long been a jumble of potentially conflicting ideas and positions. He might be described as a pro-gay rights Catholic conservative. As a blogger, he was a strong supporter of the war and President Bush during the first term, though he soured on how the Administration handled post-war Iraq and split with the President on the Gay Rights Amendment. Sullivan writes often about being gay himself. After waiting, he reluctantly endorsed Kerry's candidacy for President.
Talking Points: Unlike Sullivan, Joshua Micha Marshall, former Washington editor of the left-leaning American Prospect, was a relatively unknown figure when he launched his blog in November of 2000. While liberal in viewpoint, Marshall does more than add pure opinion to the blogging universe, his thoughts are often backed by reporting or interviews. His success on the Internet has since become a model of how to turn blogging into a career.
Instapundit: University of Tennessee law professor, Glenn Reynolds, who created the blog in August of 2001, uses it primarily as a way of passing along links and stories from others. When he does offer his own voice, it leans to the right. Another blogging success story, his web gig has led to weekly column in the UK-based Guardian, providing a conservative blogger voice.
We began coding the blogs at 10:30 Thursday, September 30th, just as the first debate came to a close and coded through October 14th. We analyzed each individual posting along the following lines:
1. Whether the content originated from the blogger or from an outside source
First we examined the topics on which the blogs were writing. Overall, they hit on many of the same themes as the mainstream press. Four-in-ten statements were about the debates-most of them assessments which came in "real time," minutes or even seconds after a candidate said or did something at the podium.
The next largest topic, musings about Iraq-mostly President Bush's policies and actions there-accounted for 11% of the postings as did the momentum of one candidate or the other. Analysis of the mainstream media and voters and battleground states each made up 10%. The amount of coverage on voter issues was roughly the same as in the mainstream press, suggesting that the blogs may not live up to the image of being more connected to their readers.
How the Blogs Framed the Campaign
This comparability with the topic agenda of the mainstream media raises some interesting implications. While our selection of blogs is limited to those that get heavy traffic, this sample at least suggests that the blogs and the mainstream press may be fascinated by similar subjects.
Next we asked what the focus of those topics was: Did they have to do with policy? With the candidate's fitness for office? With political internals like performance or tactics? Or did they focus on the media?
Looking first at the debate-related postings, nearly as much as in the mainstream press, the vast majority of debate postings (70%) were focused on inside politics (79% in the mainstream press overall). These were mostly evaluations of a candidate's performance (57%) though a smaller portion, 10%, looked at tactics and strategy of the debate. Another 13% dealt with the candidate's personal fitness for office in such areas as personal values, honesty, ethical record and management style. A mere 6% of all debate-related postings focused on policies of one candidate or the other.
This too, has interesting implications. The snapshot suggests that during major news events at least, the blogs approach is even more similar to the mainstream press than many think. The blogs may not be changing the media agenda as much as adding more pointed, personal and frankly blunt voices. Blogs, in other words, may represent to a further crossfire-ization of the political dialogue.
Looking at the assessment of each debate separately, the first encounter, focused on foreign policy, was the least tied to policy of any kind. Just 6% of the postings-three in all-focused on what the candidates actually said about policy. Instead, 57% of the postings evaluated one or both of the candidate's performances. Another 13% dealt with whether the candidate was fit for office.
Assessments of the second, town-hall style debate were even more tilted toward assessing performance-three quarters of all postings. Policy evaluations picked up, to 9%, and impressions of the candidates' fitness for office declined by almost half to 7%.
The final debate saw more tactical assessments (20%)-largely evaluations of Senator Kerry's reference to Dick Cheney's openly gay daughter. But again, candidate performance still dominated (46%) with policy trailing far behind (10%). Analysis of the job of the press was least likely here-amounting to just 2% of all postings versus 7% in the first two debates.
The contentious vice-Presidential debate did not have a single story largely evaluating the event based on policy. A majority, 57%, was about performance, another 22% covered fitness for office and 12% examined tactics and strategy.
What about the postings not related to the debates? Were they more tied to policy? Postings specifically about Iraq did tended to draw on policy (64%)-namely President Bush's policies there. But postings on domestic affairs were divided more evenly among policy (30%), inside politics (28%) and the candidate's fitness for office (24%).
In short, if the mainstream press is criticized for being too obsessed with inside baseball tactics, theater criticism and not particularly focused on the ideas of candidates, the top bloggers don't distinguish themselves as a new kind of media in that regard. They play the game as often as most mainstream outlets (6).
Clearly each of the five blogs studied has a distinct personality. That is part of what defines a blog and creates its following. So how do these personality differences play out in terms of the content they pass along? Aside from differences in their ideology, which campaign topics did they blog on? Were their postings primarily their own voice or were they rerunning someone else's? And did some focus more on policy or media analysis than others?
The Note: The Note differs from the others studied in that it is part of a mainstream media outlet, rather than the product of one individual personality. The Note is compiled by a team of ABC staffers and is primarily quotes from outside sources rather than original content. Fully 84% of the postings are from outside sources.
Coming out just once a day, with weekends off, it is more of a political round-up than most blogs, though a sense of campaign momentum and focus of the moment can be felt in it. This comes through in the range of election topics it addressed over the two-weeks studied. Though the debates still dominated, it was the smallest percent of the bunch (32%). Some of this certainly has to do with the site not being "live" during and after the debates, when many bloggers are typing away.
Voting issues such as the battle ground states and voter registration accounted for a quarter of the postings-more than three times that of any of the other four blogs. Candidate momentum was prominent as well (15%) with a particular focus on third party candidates, followed by general election musings (11%) and domestic issues (10%). The question of Iraq, perhaps surprisingly, was largely absent, accounting for just 3% of all postings, less than a third that of any other blog.
The focus of The Note is politics, politics, politics. Fully two-thirds of all posting focused on the inside game (29% tactics, 15% performance, 11% horserace and 11% veracity and other issues). Broad political themes like the nature of the electorate or politics were popular focal points as well, accounting for 11% of all postings. Policy assessments, on the other hand, accounted for a mere 6%.
When it came to who won and who lost, The Note was much less inclined than others to make a judgment. Fully 64% steered clear of calling a winner or loser or even a tie, versus 38% of the blogs overall. When it did leave an impression, it was most likely to be that Bush had lost (13%). Kerry came out the winner in 7% of the postings. Bush was the winner in just 4% of the postings, and Kerry the loser in 3%. In 9% of the postings, the assessments resulted in a draw.
Eschaton: This overtly liberal blog offered primarily its own views. A quarter of the postings came from outside sources. Aside from the debates, which accounted for 42% of the listings, its agenda seems divided among media credibility (13%)-including the airing of "Stolen Honor," candidate momentum (13%) and the war in Iraq (12%).
Eschaton was slightly less likely than average to focus on a candidate's performance (20% versus 24% overall) and instead was wrapped up in the candidates' character (25%)-primarily Bush's. The job of the press also caught this blogger's ire. Fully 18% of all his postings were about the failings of the press. Policy analysis, similar to The Note, was hard to find (7% of all postings).
When it comes to Bush versus Kerry, there is no doubt about Eschaton's allegiances. Half of all postings called Bush the loser, another 10% called Kerry the winner and just 1% suggested that Kerry lost. Not a single posting suggested Bush got the better of Kerry on anything. Roughly four-in-ten postings did not call a winner or loser.
Andrew Sullivan: Sullivan's postings were split roughly 70-30 between his own and pass-alongs from others. Aside from the debates, which made up close to half of the content, Sullivan took on more policy issues than any other blog studied. Iraq filled out more of his blog than any other we studied-15% of his postings-most of it about Bush's actions there. In addition, the issue of gay marriage, which made barely a blip in any of the other blogs (never more than one posting per blog), made up 9% of his postings during these two weeks. Other domestic issues amounted to another 3% of the content. In all 27% of his blogs were policy related. Candidate momentum-the bulk of which was about Kerry gaining ground-was the topic of 10% of the postings.
The policy topics in this blog seem to have focused on the policy issue itself rather than some political aspect like the tactics behind the policy stance. A quarter of al postings focused on policy. Only Instapundit had a greater policy focus (28%). Nevertheless, politics and candidate performance still led the pack as the focus of 52% of all his postings.
Although Sullivan often comes across as more middle of the road-or perhaps more accurately a kind of iconoclastic neoconservative-his evaluations during these two weeks clearly rooted for Kerry. First his postings were much more likely than others to call a winner or loser-90% compared with 60 to 70% for others. When a call was made, Kerry came out on top. More than a third, 36%, of the listings suggested that Bush had lost and another 34% that Kerry had won. Just 4% on the other hand, saw Bush as the winner or Kerry as the loser. Only slightly more, 11%, called it a tie.
Talking Points: Joshua Micha Marshall's blog is aptly named-his Talking Points account for 83% of the postings-the most of any blog studied. And this reliance on formulating and presenting his own opinions rather than passing on others may have contributed to the fact that he had fewest postings of any of the blogs studied.
What did he talk about? His gambit, during these two weeks as it often is, was the media. Fully 30% of his writings were on the question of media credibility and bias-more than twice that of the other blogs. The fact that Marshall was formerly a part of the mainstream press and that his entries often contain first-hand reporting (calls and research) may make him more judgmental of their work. But some of this media focus may be attributed to several entries on his blog pertaining to a faux report Fox posted on its website on Kerry's rally after the first debate - the report full of fake quotes caused a minor stir in the campaign. Iraq was high on his list as well with 14% of his postings. The debates, while certainly prominent, accounted for just a third of his work (versus more than 40% for all other sites except for The Note.)
Not surprisingly, then, roughly a fifth of his work (19%) emphasized the quality of the media's work. Another 17% was written around both tactics and candidate fitness. Broad, "meta" issues such as the nature of politics today was also a popular theme-accounting for 14% here versus just 9% overall.
And who did he favor? Perhaps the more appropriate question is who he disfavored. Fully 58% of his logs claimed Bush as the loser. Another 8% saw Kerry as the winner. While 31% did not speak to winners or losers, just a single posting named Bush as the victor of the moment.
Instapundit: Glenn Reynolds offerings are in large part an effort to highlight content from others. While his postings were a fairly even mix-57% his own and 43% from others-most of his own musings link to at least one outside voice. And even during his running commentary on the debates he often second-guessed his own views. His thoughts after the first debate: "I don't think it'll change many minds. But I have a very consistent track record of getting this stuff wrong (I thought Carter beat Reagan….) so take my opinions with a large grain of salt."
Debate commentary made up a larger portion of his election work than other blogs. Half of all his postings were about the debates. Otherwise, he was fairly evenly split among domestic issues (13%), Iraq (10%), and media analysis (10%).
Much of the site's commentary dealt with "political internals" (45%), and about third of those postings concerned candidate performance. But Instapundit also stood out for the space it gave policy. It had the most policy postings of any of the blogs studied-28% versus 15% overall.
In terms of political leanings, while he clearly came down on the side of President Bush-17% claiming him as the winner and another 21% with Kerry as the loser-he was also more even handed than others. Fully 20% of his postings called the outcome a draw between the two candidates. (40% did not address winners or losers.)
(6) Since all the blogs except for ABC's The Note are openly opinionated and aligned with one candidate over the other, we will look at who won and who lost only within the specific blogs themselves.