2008 Election Coverage Focuses on Horse Race

A new study finds the news media has focused more on campaign strategy, polls and fundraising than on the individual public policy positions of the 2008 presidential candidates.

The study, released Monday, found that news coverage in the first five months of the campaign has painted a picture of a small field of only five candidates jockeying for position.

Almost 63 percent of all stories from print, television, radio and the Internet combined focused on the political aspects of the campaign, while only 15 percent concentrated on the candidates' ideas and policy proposals, the study found.

The study was conducted jointly by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is part of the Pew Research Center, and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

"More than three-quarters of the American public said in recent surveys that they want more coverage of the candidates' positions on the issues... and that's exactly what they're not getting from the coverage in the press," said Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Big Race, Small Focus

The Project for Excellence in Journalism and Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center examined 1,742 stories that appeared from January through May 2007 in 48 different news outlets, including The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News, ABC News, NBC News, CBS News and PBS.

Mitchell said the authors of the study wondered whether the media would take advantage of the early start to the 2008 campaign and focus more on policy issues than they had in the past.

"If anything, they are focusing even more so on the horse race now," she said, noting that similar analysis of 2000 and 2004 campaign coverage found a tendency for the media to focus on who's up, who's down and who made the latest gaffe.

But, with such a large field of candidates this time around -- the race began with 19 candidates and is now down to 16 -- most news organizations do not have the resources to cover every candidate for the duration of the campaign.

"In these nominating contests with large fields, journalists are in a tough position of figuring out who the front-runners are," said Harvard professor Thomas Patterson, author of "The Vanishing Voter" and "Out of Order."

Patterson, who did not participate in conducting the study, said with such a large field questions about the horse race rather than substantive policy are natural tendencies.

"That begins to orient journalists to emphasize the horse race, and voters need much more information about the substance of the campaign," he said.

Patterson said people could begin to "tune out" of the campaign if all the information is about who's got the most support in the polls, and who's raising the most money.

The Harvard professor also said that by portraying the campaign as a game of one-upmanship, and the candidates as manipulators who will say anything to gain advantage in the primaries and caucuses, some voters could be given a jaded view of politics.

"If jaded enough, that could be a disincentive to participation," Patterson said.

Biased Coverage?

The study also found that most media outlets, particularly newspapers, the network evening news and National Public Radio, gave more positive coverage to Democrats and more negative coverage to Republicans.

While Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., got the most coverage of any presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., received the most favorable coverage from the news media.

Mitchell attributed that to the fact that while Clinton is well known to the media, Obama emerged as a relatively unknown candidate.

"Often times there is a honeymoon period for candidates that are emerging," Mitchell said.

News stories about Obama were 47 percent positive, compared with 27 percent for the former first lady. Clinton and Obama dominated the media coverage to such an extent that former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was featured in just 4 percent of stories.

Elizabeth Edwards, who is battling a recurrence of cancer, got nearly as much media attention as her husband in the first five months of the campaign. Edwards also got more attention than 10 of the 19 candidates in the race during that same period of time.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., received the most critical coverage of any other candidate. Only 12 percent of stories about McCain -- who has battled lackluster fundraising and staffing shakeups -- were considered positive in the study.

"The fact that John McCain's coverage was much more negative may speak to tendencies in the press, but they can also speak to what's going on inside his campaign," Mitchell said.

So-Called Second Tier

The study found lesser-known candidates were paid little attention by the news media.

In fact, just five of the 19 candidates that were in the race in the first five months of the year received more than half the coverage.

Clinton garnered 17 percent of overall coverage, and Obama got 14 percent, followed by three Republicans: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, with 9 percent, McCain at 7 percent, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney trailing with 5 percent.

Patterson said the fact that Democratic candidates are receiving more favorable coverage points to the power of the horse race paradigm.

"None of the Republicans look like a winner, they all have liabilities," Patterson said.

Public Broadcaster Provided Most Neutral Coverage

While stories about political strategy and where candidates stood in the polls dominated every media sector, the study found there were other differences in coverage.

PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer was found to provide the most neutral coverage for paying attention to the lesser-known candidates and for comparing the candidates' positions on issues.

Online new sites were also largely neutral but focused more on breaking news.

Newspapers were found to be more positive than other media about Democrats. Talk-radio was more negative about almost every candidate than any other outlet.

The study also found there has been an increase in the media's coverage of candidates' personal backgrounds.

Network television focused more than other media on the personal backgrounds of candidates. However, even coverage of candidate backgrounds and where they stood on issues was told through a political lens.

Coverage of Romney focused on his Mormon religion and whether that would be a political liability. Media coverage of Giuliani focused on how conservatives within the Republican party would react to his position on abortion and his three marriages.

Clinton's position on Iraq was constantly evaluated as a potential vulnerability with the more liberal base of the Democratic Party.

"Instead of looking at deep questions about (Clinton's) views and how those might differ in a nuanced way with other candidates, or how her stance might affect ground operations in Iraq, more stories tend to talk about how her stand may be good or not good in terms of votes," Mitchell said.

"It's written through the lens of how (her policy position) would affect the vote instead of what it would mean for our relations with Iraq and our use of the military over the next fours year," she concluded.