Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Study Finds Media Are Kinder to Kerry

New Study Finds Media Favored Kerry in First Two Weeks of October
By E & P Staff
Published: October 26, 2004

NEW YORK A new study for the non-partisan Project for Excellence in Journalism suggests that in the first two weeks of October, during the period of the presidential debates, George W. Bush received much more unfavorable media coverage than Sen. John Kerry.

In the overall sample (which included four newspapers, two cable news networks and the four leading broadcast networks), more than half of all Bush stories were negative in tone, during this period. One-quarter of all Kerry stories were negative, according to the study.

"This is the mirror image of what happened four years ago," the report states, when Bush benefited from coverage in the same period, enjoying twice as many positive stories.

This raises the question of how much the results have to do with one candidate doing especially well in the debates, plus the liabilities of the incumbent, who receives negative coverage not just for performance on the stump but also for the policies of his administration.

The study also concluded that despite media promises every four years to focus less on campaign dynamics and more on issues, this once again has not occurred. Also: "The coverage this year has been even less likely than four years ago to describe how campaign events directly affected voters."

The four newspapers in the sample were all based in very large cities, with three East Coast dailies (The New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald) and the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch.

The cable channels were CNN and Fox, but the study only focused on two programs: the Aaron Brown and Brit Hume evening shows. Only broadcast TV produced a large sample, as it included the PBS NewsHour and the three morning shows and three evening news programs on CBS, NBC and ABC.

In all, from all outlets, 817 stories were coded and decoded.

In the final accounting, 59% of stories that were mainly about Bush told a mainly negative story, while 25% of Kerry stories played out that way. One in three stories about Kerry were positive, one in seven for Bush.

While bias could be a factor, there are other possible explanations. Fully 40% of stories logged by the researchers had to do with the debates, where Kerry was generally seen as "winning" or doing very well, especially in debate number one. Another 9% concerned Iraq, with many setbacks during this period for the U.S. that also would drive Bush's negatives up unrelated to the campaign. In fact, nearly one in four stories on Bush were related to Iraq.

The study also notes "some differences in tone between different media," finding that newspapers "were the most negative medium by a sizable margin." Some 46% of all newspaper stories carried a negative cast, compared with 28% for the networks and 30% for the two cable shows. Newspapers were also harsher in tone about Bush than the other media. Network news was least negative.

Newspapers "tended to cover a wider range of themes than other media studied." Even, so, the press, like other media, "still framed the news largely through a tactical, insider lens."

These judgments, however, are based on just four not very typical newspapers in a not very typical period of the presidential race.