A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy has found that the media coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign was more likely to be spun in a positive manner toward Democrats than Republicans. The study also found that the press coverage of candidates was in sharp contrast to what the public says it wants from campaign reporting by concentrating on the effects that events have on candidates rather than reporting on how candidates’ stances on issues will affect the electorate. (h/t Bookworm)
In other words, the media is both slanted to the left and under performing in terms of public expectations on election coverage. The notable exception on left leaning bias is in talk radio; the one media outlet that is under attack by certain Democrats in Congress for emphasis on “fairness”.
Before I discuss the underlying data I think it is interesting to point out that the data on Fox News directly contradicts the mainstream narrative about its bias in favor of Republican candidates. While Fox news was more negative than other candidates about Democrats this trend merely helped underscore Fox’s neutrality in coverage because of the lopsided nature of Fox’s competitors as noted in the study.
The programming studied on Fox News offered a somewhat more positive picture of Republicans and more negative one of Democrats compared with other media outlets. Fox News stories about a Republican candidate were most likely to be neutral (47%), with the remainder more positive than negative (32% vs. 21% negative). The bulk of that positive coverage went to Giuliani (44% positive), while McCain still suffered from unflattering coverage (20% positive vs. 35% negative).
When it came to Democratic candidates, the picture was more negative. Again, neutral stories had a slight edge (39%), followed by 37% negative and 24% positive. And, in marked contrast from the rest of the media, coverage of Obama was twice as negative as positive: 32% negative vs. 16% positive and 52% neutral.
But any sense here that the news channel was uniformly positive about Republicans or negative about Democrats is not manifest in the data.
I find these statistics the most alarming of all the study results because a whole political party banned Fox News based on an unfounded narrative that was put forth by liberal interest groups.
Newspapers lead all other media outlets in terms of content and tone favorable for Democrats. Perhaps the most disturbing facet of the newspaper coverage was that nearly half of all front page stories were triggered by newsroom initiative rather than reacting to what candidates did and said. This stands in contrast to all other media.
On the front pages of newspapers, Democrats tended to get more coverage than in other media, somewhat more positive coverage than elsewhere, and more stories tended to contain information that explained how they would be affected if that candidate were elected than was true in the press coverage overall. In addition, many more of the stories were initiated by journalists than elsewhere in the press, a fact that signals a special role for print as a source of enterprise in news.
Another distinguishing characteristic of the print stories studied was tone. Democrats got much more positive coverage in the daily papers examined than they did elsewhere. Fully 59% of all stories about Democrats had a clear, positive message vs. 11% that carried a negative tone. That is roughly double the percentage of positive stories that we found in the media generally. Just under a third (30%) of the front page stories examined were neutral.
For the top tier Democrats, the positive tilt was even more the case than for Democrats in general. Obama’s front page coverage in the sample was 70% positive and 9% negative and Clinton’s was similarly 61% positive and 13% negative.
Republican candidates, in contrast, were more likely to receive clearly negative stories in print than elsewhere: 40% negative vs. 26% positive and 34% neutral.
Newspapers also stood out for initiating more campaign coverage on their own. Nearly half of all front page stories were triggered by newsroom initiative rather than reacting to what the candidate or others said or did (46%). That is substantially higher than the 28% in the media generally in the sample. A little more than a third of stories were triggered by the candidates and their campaigns (37%), compared with 46% generally.
Following on the heels of newspapers was network evening news. The tone of coverage was again slanted toward Democrats with Barack Obama getting the bulk of positive coverage and John McCain getting the bulk of the negative.
Cable news was the one bastion of “friendly territory” for Republicans on the tube. Not that this means that Republicans received more favorable coverage or even some sense of neutrality. It just means that Republicans fared slightly better in this medium than others with the exception of talk radio.
What distinguished cable news more in the first five months of the year was the tone of the coverage. The positive-negative breakdown of Democrats followed roughly the same trend as the media overall (34% positive vs. 25% negative). But the tone of Republican coverage was quite different. On cable TV, stories about Republican candidates were nearly as likely to be positive as to be negative (29% positive vs. 30% negative).
But those numbers only reflect the three major cable news channels taken together. When you look at the coverage of each one, there are significant differences in how the candidates were treated. CNN gave decidedly more negative coverage to Republican candidates; Fox was more negative towards Democrats--and more positive towards Republicans; MSNBC gave decidedly positive coverage towards both.
Who fared the worst in terms of bias in cable? CNN naturally by casting Republicans in a negative light by a margin of three-to-one!
Talk radio hosts spent most of their time dwelling on the negative with a split along ideological lines.
It may surprise no one that the 2008 presidential election was a major feature of talk radio, both conservative and liberal. From January through May, the race for the White House has accounted for 13% of the total airtime studied, making it the second-biggest story after the debate over Iraq policy (17%). Overall, conservative talk radio was far more interested in the early campaign than was liberal talk radio. Conservative talk radio aired 106 segments on the candidates, while liberal talk radio mustered a bare 29 segments.
Most of that airtime was spent dwelling on the negative. Conservatives spent the bulk of their time criticizing Democratic candidates and liberal hosts vented about Republican contenders. The candidate who received the most attention by far on talk radio was Senator Clinton.
The study as a whole was quite illuminating. It appears that positive coverage of Barack Obama accounted for much of the positive lean toward Democrats. When erasing the coverage that focused on him in conjunction with the negative coverage of McCain the reporting was more even.
Nonetheless the study confirms that the perception of liberal bias in the media is more than just conjecture; statistical analysis confirms that belief.
Tone for Democrats vs. Republicans
Taking all the presidential hopefuls together, the press overall has been more positive about Democratic candidates and more negative about Republicans. In the stories mainly about one of the Democratic candidates, the largest percentage was neutral (39%), but more than a third of stories (35%) were positive, while slightly more than a quarter (26%) carried a clearly negative tone.
For Republicans, the numbers were basically reversed. Again the same number as for Democrats (39%) were neutral, but more than a third (35%) were negative vs. 26% positive.
In other words, not only did the Republicans receive less coverage overall, the attention they did get tended to be more negative than that of Democrats. And in some specific media genres, the difference is particularly striking.
Terry Trippany is the editor and publisher of Webloggin.