The Invisible Primary – Invisible No Longer
A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
In the early months of the 2008 presidential campaign, the media had already winnowed the race to mostly five candidates and offered Americans relatively little information about their records or what they would do if elected, according to a comprehensive new study of the election coverage across the media.
The press also gave some candidates measurably more favorable coverage than others. Democrat Barack Obama, the junior Senator from Illinois, enjoyed by far the most positive treatment of the major candidates during the first five months of the year—followed closely by Fred Thompson, the actor who at the time was only considering running. Arizona Senator John McCain received the most negative coverage—much worse than his main GOP rivals.
Meanwhile, the tone of coverage of the two party front runners, New York Senator Hillary Clinton and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was virtually identical, and more negative than positive, according to the study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
In all, 63% of the campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign. That is nearly four times the number of stories about the personal backgrounds of the candidates (17%) or the candidates’ ideas and policy proposals (15%). And just 1% of stories examined the candidates’ records or past public performance, the study found.
The press’ focus on fundraising, tactics and polling is even more evident if one looks at how stories were framed rather than the topic of the story. Just 12% of stories examined were presented in a way that explained how citizens might be affected by the election, while nearly nine-out-of-ten stories (86%) focused on matters that largely impacted only the parties and the candidates. Those numbers, incidentally, match almost exactly the campaign-centric orientation of coverage found on the eve of the primaries eight years ago.
All of these findings seem to be at sharp variance with what the public says it wants from campaign reporting. A new poll by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted for this report finds that about eight-in-ten of Americans say they want more coverage of the candidates’ stances on issues, and majorities want more on the record and personal background, and backing of the candidates, more about lesser-known candidates and more about debates.
Among other findings from the PEJ-Shorenstein study:
- Just five candidates have been the focus of more than half of all the coverage. Hillary Clinton received the most (17% of stories), though she can thank the overwhelming and largely negative attention of conservative talk radio hosts for much of the edge in total volume. Barack Obama was next (14%), with Republicans Giuliani, McCain, and Romney measurably behind (9% and 7% and 5% respectively). As for the rest of the pack, Elizabeth Edwards, a candidate spouse, received more attention than 10 of them, and nearly as much as her husband.
- Democrats generally got more coverage than Republicans, (49% of stories vs. 31%.) One reason was that major Democratic candidates began announcing their candidacies a month earlier than key Republicans, but that alone does not fully explain the discrepancy.
- Overall, Democrats also have received more positive coverage than Republicans (35% of stories vs. 26%), while Republicans received more negative coverage than Democrats (35% vs. 26%). For both parties, a plurality of stories, 39%, were neutral or balanced.
- Most of that difference in tone, however, can be attributed to the friendly coverage of Obama (47% positive) and the critical coverage of McCain (just 12% positive.) When those two candidates are removed from the field, the tone of coverage for the two parties is virtually identical.
- There were also distinct coverage differences in different media. Newspapers were more positive than other media about Democrats and more citizen-oriented in framing stories. Talk radio was more negative about almost every candidate than any other outlet. Network television was more focused than other media on the personal backgrounds of candidates. For all sectors, however, strategy and horse race were front and center.
The findings about who got the most favorable coverage and the focus on horse race in many ways reinforce each other. Obama, the first candidate of color to be a major White House contender, performed better in polling and fundraising than expected in these early months. McCain, in contrast, was a former presumed front runner who fared far worse in the polls and in fundraising than anticipated.
Even coverage of issues and candidate background was often cast through a political lens, frequently in the form of exploring the potential vulnerabilities of key candidates. For Clinton, this strategic focus translated into more coverage of her evolving stances on the Iraq War, something that created strains with elements of her party’s more liberal base. For Giuliani it resulted in coverage of his position on abortion and his marriage history, two areas that raise questions about his chances with the conservative base of his party. For Romney it meant more coverage of his religion as a member of the Mormon Church.