As the 2008 primary season ends, the news media has come in from plenty of criticism for its perceived biases and lapses in coverage of the candidates. According to some observers at BlogHer and elsewhere, the coverage of Sen. Hillary Clinton has been consistently sexist and unprofessional, while coverage of Sen. Barack Obama has been fawning and dishonest. Meanwhile, other press critics complain that Sen. John McCain has had a free ride.
However, a recently-published content analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Character and the Primaries of 2008, offers what appears to be some contradictory findings.
For the first three months of this year, PEJ found:
- Coverage of Senators Obama and Clinton were almost equally positive
- Coverage of Sen. McCain was more critical than that of either Democrat
- Coverage of Obama became more negative after Clinton complained that Obama was being favored and appears to have become more critical in the ensuing months
The candidates' campaigns were as powerful as journalists and authors
when it came to projecting messages about the candidates and their
The study was based on weekly analyses of the campaign news coverage by 48 print, broadcast television, online, cable television and radio news outlets. PEJ did a similar set of studies during the 2004 campaign.
Here are some excerpts that capture the conclusions about the coverage of the candidates, in alphabetical order:
Clinton had the most success projecting the idea of her preparedness to
lead the country—to take the 3 A.M. phone call as her well-known ad
proclaimed. A full 38% of all character assertions spoke to this trait.
This message was much more clearly asserted than any other about
[O]ne criticism has proved particularly persistent. Claims that he is not
a reliable conservative and may alienate the conservative core of the
party accounted for fully half of all threads studied during this time
(and 88% of the all negative threads)
The most prevalent master narrative about the Illinois senator was
established early: the idea that he represents hope and change. More
than a quarter of all the assertions studied about Obama (28%)
projected this idea, What’s more, the attempts by his critics, or
skeptical journalists, to suggest that the promise of change was empty
or overblown, never got much traction in the press. Only 4% of the
assertions studied were rebuttals of the narrative that Obama
There hasn't been a lot of blog reaction to the PEJ study, but its results got me thinking about why PEJ's data seemed at such variance with the informed opinons of so many bloggers and other media critics. One possible explanation is that many of the criticisms that I've read of news coverage focus on comments by television pundits and personalities, while the PEJ sampled a wider range of media.
They also left out such magazines as Vanity Fair, which currently has former Pres. Clinton riled over an article say that people close to him worry that his post-presidential personal and professional activities may be indiscreet. (As much as I respect its author, Todd Purdum, I thought the framing of that story was pretty strange, myself, given that the article itsef concedes that there is no evidence that Clinton has done anything wrong.)
Another possible reason is that the positive and negative narratives described in the PEJ study are not necesarily the ones that some critics think should be emphasized. For example, many critics of the news coverage of Sen. McCain care more about his ties to lobbyists than they do about whether he is a "true" conservative.
What are your thoughts about this research? Does it confirm, contradict or complicate your sense of the way the coverage of the campaign is going?
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