September 4, 2008

Big Events Eclipse the Issues

Jul 21-27 2008 16
Jul 28-Aug 3 2008 14
Aug 4-10 2008 32
Aug 11-17 2008 24
Aug 18-24 2008 8
Aug 25-31 2008 2

2%-Amount of  Aug. 25-31 campaign coverage coverage of policy issues.

Campaign coverage reached an all-time high the week of August 25-31, filling 69% of the overall newshole, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. That week, the buzz over Barack Obama’s selection of Joe Biden, events relating to the Democratic Convention in Denver and John McCain’s surprising choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate dominated the narrative, accounting for more than 80% of the campaign coverage.

But during the most campaign- focused week yet, the major issues all but vanished from that coverage. Stories about the candidates’ policy positions filled only 2% of the campaign newshole from Aug. 25-31—the smallest amount of attention paid to the policy debate since the general election began in June. Half of that coverage was focused on the economy (1%). Other subjects on which the McCain and Obama disagree—such as energy and Iraq—generated negligible coverage.

The disappearance of the policy questions from last week’s campaign narrative marks a significant departure from previous coverage. From Aug. 11-17, the candidates’ responses to the war in Georgia constituted the top campaign storyline in a week when coverage of issues combined to fill 24% of the newshole. Led by the debate over energy policy, issues accounted for 32% of all campaign coverage the week of Aug. 1-10. Even in the week of Aug. 18-24, when Obama’s selection of Biden was easily the top campaign theme, policy matters accounted for 8% of the coverage.

The media were clearly preoccupied with Denver and Sarah Palin last week. The question now is, when will the policy debate re-emerge in the coverage.

Tricia Sartor and Dana Page of PEJ