Unfavorable politics begets unfavorable coverage

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has published findings from a study that examines the tone of coverage of the presidential campaign between Sept. 8 and Oct. 16.

Perhaps the most significant finding is that the coverage of Sen. McCain has been, by a pretty fair margin, largely negative. Coverage of Sen. Obama, on the other hand, is quite even — but a touch more positive (or “less negative,” I suppose).

But simply being on the receiving end of more negative coverage than your primary opponent isn’t the issue. It’s an interesting finding, but the real issue is whether that negative coverage — or your opponent’s more positive coverage — is unwarranted. After all, if we believe that, in an ideal world, news coverage should consist of reporting the days events and putting them in an appropriate context for consumers, negative coverage makes sense if someone’s doing stupid shit.

Was coverage of McCain inappropriately unfavorable, or is it a decent reflection of a troubled campaign? Was coverage of Obama fairly even-handed, or does it reflect some “media bias” toward the Democratic candidate?

I’ll let you visit the Pew site to read the specifics, but here’s the conclusion of the overview (emphasis mine):

What the findings also reveal is the reinforcing — rather than press-generated — effects of media. We see a repeating pattern here in which the press first offers a stenographic account of candidate rhetoric and behavior, while also on the watch for misstatements and gaffes. Then, in a secondary reaction, it measures the political impact of what it has reported. This is magnified in particular during presidential races by the prevalence of polling and especially daily tracking. While this echo effect exists in all press coverage, it is far more intense in presidential elections, with the explosion of daily tracking polls, state polls, poll aggregation sites and the 24-hour cable debate over their implications. Even coverage of the candidate’s policy positions and rhetoric, our reading of these stories suggest, was tied to horse race and took on its cast.

Also, the report makes an interesting point about quantity of coverage, which is certainly relevant to any investigation of potentially skewed coverage:

McCain did succeed in erasing one advantage Obama enjoyed earlier in the campaign—the level of media exposure each candidate received. Since the end of August, the two rivals have been in a virtual dead heat in the amount of attention paid, and when vice presidential candidates are added to the mix the Republican ticket has the edge. This is a striking contrast to the pre-convention period, when Obama enjoyed nearly 50% more coverage.

And here’s an odd-duck fact to wrap this post up:

Nor are these numbers different than what we have seen before. Obama’s numbers are similar to what we saw for John Kerry four years ago as he began rising in the polls, and McCain’s numbers are almost identical to what we saw eight years ago for Democrat Al Gore.

So they’re both losers!

Image courtesy of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and its “Winning the Media Campaign” report

2 thoughts on “Unfavorable politics begets unfavorable coverage

  1. Reading paper newspapers is dead like raising your own cattle is dead. Not as many people do it these days, but the number will never be 0 — it’ll never be dead.

    Sure, most of the beef is concentrated in the hands the major producers. As that consolidation continues, you’ll see more and more value in the little local guys that remain — but you still won’t be able to deny the success of the big dogs.

    Of course, the big dogs are your monstrous agribusiness cattle farms and, on the news side, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and USA Today. Sure, they’re circulation is declining, but that doesn’t mean less people are getting their news — even from those sources.

    And the little guys are my brother in law, who’s going to have some rockin’ steaks for us in a few month but could never feed the whole town. In the news business, perhaps MinnPost or The Uptake is the little — tremendous quality, for the most part, while acknowledging that they’re just a single stroke of paint in the bigger picture.

    Newspapers are dead like news is dead. And even when and if print “dies,” it’ll only be because some other news delivery device has replaced it.

    Journalism doesn’t require paper.

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