Shocker: Media Favor Kerry

New Study Suggests Some Media Favored Kerry in First Two Weeks of October (Editor & Publisher)

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 coverage from some media than Sen. John Kerry. In the limited sample (which included four newspapers, two cable news programs and seven shows on 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 debate period, enjoying twice as many positive stories as Al Gore.

This raises the question of how much the results have to do simply 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 hardly representative of the industry as a whole: all are 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. In 2000, in the same period, 56% of stories about Vice President Gore were mainly negative.

While bias could be a factor, there are other possible explanations. Fully 40% of stories logged by the researchers this October 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.

Interesting. Of course, most observers only had Bush losing the first debate and there was substantial criticism of Kerry’s performance in the third debate, especially the Mary Cheney flap. In a companion piece, Newspaper Picks: An Analysis of the 2004 Endorsements So Far, Greg Mitchell notes that Kerry picked up more than endorsements from the big papers in the swing states than Democratic candidates normally do.

Yes, everyone knows newspaper picks in presidential races don’t count for very much, but they do mean something. Surveys by E&P and others in previous years showed that roughly 5 to 10% of voters (or more) felt that editorials had some influence when they cast their ballots. In a battleground state that’s not insignificant.

In addition to the power of the endorsement itself, papers that endorse Kerry are presumably more likely to give more prominence to stories critical of Bush, even rather dubious ones like the explosives that may or may not have gone missing after our invasion of Iraq. In a tight race, that sort of thing matters a lot.

In related news, a survey of the writers at Slate reveals, to noone’s surprise, its bias: At this magazine, it’s Kerry by a landslide!

Jacob Weisberg makes a reasonable case that it’s a good idea to publish such polls in a piece entitled, “Our case for journalistic disclosure.”

Today Slate continues a tradition initiated four years ago, when we asked our staff and contributors to tell us who they voted for on Election Day 2000. Last time, the tally was 29 for Gore; 4 for Bush; 2 for Nader; and 2 for Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate. This time, we’ve cast a slightly wider net and caught 45 for Kerry; 4 for Bush; 1 for Michael Badnarik (Libertarian); and 1 for David Cobb (Green). Interesting footnotes: One of those who voted for Bush in 2000 (our former publisher) has switched to Kerry. (The other Bush 2000 voters aren’t in this year’s survey.) One contributor who voted Libertarian in 2000 is now supporting Bush. The other three Bush supporters are new to Slate since the last election. One current Kerry voter, Daniel Drezner, was a Bush campaign adviser last time around.

Other than curiosity, we’re conducting this voluntary poll again for two main reasons. The first is to do something in lieu of an official endorsement by the magazine. Slate is a journal of opinion, but those opinions usually differ. Even writers who agree about a conclusion seldom cite the same reason. Collectivizing the fruit of unconventional minds in an endorsement would either ignore many views or yield a mushy compromise. It seems much more satisfactory to tell you who we’re endorsing individually at the voting booth.

The second reason is one Michael Kinsley and Jack Shafer cited when we conducted our survey in 2000: to emphasize the distinction between opinion and bias. Journalists, like people, have opinions that influence their behavior. Reporters and editors at most large news organizations in the United States are instructed to keep their opinions to themselves to avoid creating an impression of partisanship. Len Downie, the executive editor of the Washington Post, famously goes so far as to avoid even voting. Slate, which is a journal of opinion, takes precisely the opposite approach. Rather than bury our views, we cultivate and exhibit them. A basic premise of our kind of journalism is that we can openly express what we think and still be fair.

Of course, this information would be far more useful earlier in the election cycle.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Media, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. M. Murcek says:

    Should Bush win, the media comes away with everyone who’s paying attention knowing that they could not swing the election. The spin will be that Kerry was such a bad candidate that even the media’s help couldn’t save him, and all they were trying to do was “level the playing field.”


  2. Bill says:

    With a GWB victory I believe this dispells the notion that we live in a 50-50 Blue/Red society. With all the media bias of which they have gone far beyond the norm in this election cycle and have been caught; it would be obvious that it is not 50-50 America. Even the media could not sway opinion and determine the outcome.

  3. Anjin-San says:

    I know this is the wrong thread, but this needs to be posted RE: the missing explosives in Iraq store. Yet another FUBAR>>>

    “Last night on this broadcast we reported that the 101st Airborne never found the nearly 380 tons of HMX and RDX explosives. We did not conclude the explosives were missing or had vanished, nor did we say they missed the explosives. We simply reported that the 101st did not find them.”

    “For its part, the Bush campaign immediately pointed to our report as conclusive proof that the weapons had been removed before the Americans arrived. That is possible, but that is not what we reported.”

    — NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, quoted by the New York Times, on the missing weapons in Iraq. The most telling line from the story: “For the second day Mr. Bush did not speak about the issue, twice ignoring questions from reporters.”

  4. jesse says:

    Does that mean you’ll concede that the media was biased towards Bush in 2000?