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Candidates’ Successes, Slumps in Polls Often Echoed by Media Coverage

October 23, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Results of a Project for Excellence in Journalism report indicate media coverage of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama often mirrors their standing in the polls. A media critic and journalists weigh the impact of the recent findings and the role of media coverage in the 2008 race.

JIM LEHRER: Now, covering the coverage of the presidential campaign. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit report.
JEFFREY BROWN: In a campaign that’s generated enormous interest and seemingly more coverage than a 24-hour day would allow, are there consistent trends or themes in the reporting?

A new study, “Winning the Media Campaign,” from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism offers some answers. Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director of the group and a former media reporter for the Boston Globe.

Also with us is Callie Crossley, program manager at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and a contributor to WGBH Boston’s media program, “Beat the Press.”

And Robin Abcarian, who’s been on the campaign trail with the candidates as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

Mark, the headline, I guess, on your study, the coverage of your study of the coverage, you write, “The media coverage has not so much cast Barack Obama in a favorite light as it has portrayed John McCain in a substantially negative one.”

Now, what does that mean?

MARK JURKOWITZ, Project for Excellence in Journalism: Well, the period we looked at, Jeffrey, was from Sept. 8 through Oct. 16, so it was a crucial period in the election, basically from the end of the Republican convention through all of the presidential debates, so a crucial moment.

And what we do is we look at what we call the tone in the campaign. We actually evaluate stories — hundreds and hundreds of them — to see whether there tend to be more negative assertions or positive assertions about a candidate in a story.

And we’re actually very conservative about the way we do it. We have a lot of stories that are neutral.

Stories follow campaign tone

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to know what you mean by negative, yes.

MARK JURKOWITZ: Well, negative could be anything from a source to the journalist himself saying anything from, "This campaign looks like it's in trouble," or this, you know, "He's been accused of this or that." It's really an assertion that in some way casts a negative light on the candidate or his campaign or as opposed to positive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can I give you an example from today's paper?


JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of stories today about expenditure on Sarah Palin's wardrobe.

MARK JURKOWITZ: That would be, in all probability, depending on how the actual story looked, a negative story about Sarah Palin.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even though it is a reported, straight reported...

MARK JURKOWITZ: If it's straight reporting and there is no, you know, hint whatsoever, then it would be a neutral story. But if people, for example, are criticizing, if there are two or three sources, or stories as we saw today, you know, with perhaps people saying, "Boy, I don't want my money spent that way," then that would be a negative assertion, as opposed to a positive assertion.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what you're essentially saying is that the stories followed the polling or the tone of the campaign?

MARK JURKOWITZ: Well, what we clearly see in the overarching coverage of the campaign -- and Barack Obama, in the period we looked at, his coverage was a little more positive than negative; John McCain's was considerably more negative than positive -- is we see sort of the interconnectedness between the coverage of the campaign itself and the strategic dynamic of the campaign.

And the simple message of our report is that: Winning begets winning coverage.

If a candidate is perceived to be and is seen as doing well in polls, if the strategic dynamic of the campaign is favoring him, then he tends to get better coverage. And that happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: Callie Crossley, what do you make of that, in terms of what drives the coverage?

CALLIE CROSSLEY, Contributor, "Beat the Press": I think Mark is exactly right. One thing to really underscore here is that political scientists have said for years that people really start to pay attention right after Labor Day.

So this is a critical time period for us to look at media coverage, because I think it has more of an impact on people who are just really beginning to pay attention to what the issues are and concerns.

So I think that, when you have a story like the Sarah Palin one and the wardrobe, it becomes important because this is how she described herself. This is her story.

And so, if it appears to be going against her, and she said she was a Wal-Mart mom and now there's $150,000 being spent on a wardrobe for her, then that's definitely a negative. And I think people are definitely paying attention.

So I would agree that the negativity, if it all -- it seems to be even worse, if that's possible, has grown exponentially. And it also grows because we know there's an echo chamber out there with regard to how media is covered. Mark has mentioned that.

And so, on the Web -- and these days, how people get information is quite viral. So this stuff goes around and around 10 times more than it might have been if just people were checking in with traditional media.

So this is a very important survey, I think.

Covering more than policy

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Robin Abcarian, you've been on the road, including with McCain and Palin. And at times in this campaign, they and their audiences have been very critical of the media for the coverage. So what do you make of this study?

ROBIN ABCARIAN, Los Angeles Times: Well, I take issue a little bit with the idea that negative or positive coverage can result in affecting the outcome of the campaign. I mean, we don't really know whether that's the case yet.

When it comes to Sarah Palin's wardrobe, I think that two very legitimate issues were raised, one that Callie alluded to, which was, here's somebody who's portraying herself as a hockey mom wearing the very finest high-end American and European fashions. And what does that say about her consistency?

It also raised questions about the FEC regulations and whether it was a legitimate outlay for the Republican National Committee to spend $150,000 on personal items for the candidate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robin, you know, there's always talk about covering the issues versus covering the horse race versus something we call, I guess, temperament or judgment. Those are more subjective things.

How do you think about that when you're covering the campaign?

ROBIN ABCARIAN: Well, what I think is that policy is very, very important. The candidate's stances on the issues, equally important.

But I also think that American voters make their decisions based on all kinds of intangibles: how they feel about the candidates, whether they think the candidates are trustworthy, how they look.

So I think there are many levels that American voters are judging the candidates on. And so stories that are not strictly policy I think are totally legitimate.

Does the tone influence voters?

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark, what, I mean, may be the biggest question here is what your study tells us about perceived or actual bias in the coverage.

MARK JURKOWITZ: Well, everybody, of course has asked that question. And the one thing that's important to say is, although terms like negative and positive coverage seem loaded, we're not saying that's the same thing as unfair coverage.

We're not suggesting that all coverage should be neutral. Those are two completely different things.

We've been asked a lot about, is there bias? Throughout this campaign there have been allegations of bias. There were allegations, frankly, from the Clinton campaign in the primary season that the media were favoring Barack Obama.

The truth is complex and nuanced. And what we really do say in the study is, the data don't give us a conclusive answer to that. What the data do suggest -- and to use the word "bias" loosely -- is that the bias here does tend toward the sort of winning strategic narrative.

And what we actually saw in the arc of John McCain's coverage was, when our study began, right after the convention, he was having -- he was doing well strategically. He had gotten a bounce in the polls. He was ahead. Sarah Palin energized the base.

That week, he got positive, more positive than negative coverage. Obama's coverage was more negative than positive.

Once the economic crisis hit and set off sort of a link of reactions -- and some actions by McCain, some actions by Obama -- changes in the poll, that's when the tone of the coverage began to change for John McCain.

JEFFREY BROWN: Callie Crossley, you raised this, the echo chamber and just the sheer volume out there, the Internet, obviously. Doesn't that allow anyone to find almost anything, in terms of coverage? More speeches are available; more fact-checking is available; certainly, more opinion is available.

How does that change your thinking about how the media, whatever that means nowadays, covers the campaign?

CALLIE CROSSLEY: Well, absolutely. It allows people who want to do that to go find information. There are some excellent sites to do that.

But I think when people use the Web, as they've been using it in this election and it's been shown over and over, they tend to go to sites which reflect what they already believe.

So at this point in the campaign coverage, people are looking for something that supports where they are. For those people who are, as they say, soft voters, I think the preponderance of the coverage and that tone may, in fact, influence them.

So back to Mark's point about success begetting success. If there are more and more stories about "Obama seems to be winning, it's all over, blah, blah, blah," I think that may have some impact on people. We won't know until November the 4th, of course, but it's heavy.

And there's been so much horse race coverage out here. And I think it's driven by the polls. And the polls then are interpreted to be negative or positive.

And I just gets -- you feel assaulted, I think, if you're a consumer of news.

Individual takes may add up

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Robin, one last issue that this raises is a concern recently, even in the last few days, about whether some in the media have essentially started to treat this race like it's over.

ROBIN ABCARIAN: Yes, I mean, I do think that's a legitimate concern. And I have worried about that myself.

The problem is, every news organization, every Web site has its own take on the election. Each individual take, though, can add up to a torrent and then a deluge of opinion, and I think that can have an effect on how voters will pull the lever once they get into the booth.

But I do think we are doing our jobs. And if the tone of the campaign either goes negative or the polls start to reflect that McCain is struggling, we would be remiss as journalists if we didn't reflect that in our coverage.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. I know there's a lot more in your study. If people want to go to it, is the Web site -- do you want to give that?

MARK JURKOWITZ: ..., a good one.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Mark Jurkowitz, Callie Crossley and Robin Abcarian, thank you all very much.