Maligning the Media: Is There a Bias in Campaign/Election News Coverage?
In response to what he perceived as an unduly large amount of coverage featuring his opponent, Sen. McCain and his campaign created a web advertisement dubbed “Obama Love” featuring journalists calling a Obama a “rock star,” confessing that “sometimes it’s hard to remain objective,” and in the most effuse example of this alleged “Obama Love,” Chris Matthews states that he “felt this thrill going up [his] leg” when he heard Obama speak. Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons’ “You’re Just Too Good To Be True” plays in the background of this montage. A conservative organization, Citizens United, has plans to release a documentary on the subject entitled “Hype: The Obama Effect.”
The accusations of a liberal or Democratic bias in the media started flying in a large part due to the media reaction to Barack Obama’s trip overseas to the Middle East and Europe. The trip was simultaneously a fact-finding mission, an effort to boost Obama’s foreign policy credentials and make him look ‘presidential,’ a chance to prime foreign audiences for possible future diplomatic endeavors, as well as—let’s face it—one pretty amazing photo-op.
In efforts to defend themselves against these charges of bias, journalists argued that, as Clarence Page put it in his July 23 column in the Chicago Tribune, “a big story is our biggest bias.” This defense was adopted in several other news sources, including the Los Angeles Times’ Readers’ Representative Blog, which stated in a July 25 post that “The news itself dictates the amount of coverage.” In his July 27 column, constructed as a memo to Sen. McCain, Clarence Page articulated this point rather stingingly, stating that, “The media-bias charge would be bad news, if it were true, Senator. But I think your real problem is worse: You are the victim of a lackluster campaign.” Essentially, these sources, and others that argued similar points, did not attempt to deny the greater amount of coverage given to Obama (at least in recent weeks), but rather strove to justify this coverage in light of standard journalistic practices that preside above any sort of bias, liberal or otherwise.
Although these defenses seem to hold at least some legitimacy, a careful examination of this Obama media explosion is in order. The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), a non-partisan research center, reported that Obama’s visit to the Middle East and Europe consumed 51% of all campaign news coverage during the week of July 21-27. Somewhat ironically, the third largest block of coverage, occupying 6.9% of the week’s coverage and clocking in just behind the 7.4% of coverage of the Iraq War as an issue, was devoted to introspection on the press treatment of Obama.
The PEJ, as well as, respectfully, the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, add a caveat to this observation of bloated coverage. Both research centers observed, in studies performed independently of each other, that not all of the coverage of Obama was flattering or positive. The PEJ noted that much of the coverage surrounding Obama’s trip overseas speculated on “whether adulation abroad would translate into votes at home and whether [Obama] had the specifics to back up his popularity.” The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University found that despite elevated coverage, “ABC, NBC and CBS were tougher on Obama than on Republican John McCain during the first six weeks of the general-election campaign.”
To complicate these findings even further, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures trust in various institutions, reported that in 2008, 45% of respondents trusted the media “to do what is right,” up from 43% in 2007, and 30% in 2006. To put this number in perspective, only 39% of 2008 respondents trusted the government to do what is right. Richard Edelman, the president and CEO of the PR giant Edelman, says this rise in trust is because “the definition of media has broadened to encompass social media…and mainstream entities are now available as and when needed.”
It is this last point that serves as the saving measure of the American media. Much like our government, the media have developed a system of checks and balances akin to that of a democratic institution. As media have expanded online, new forums have grown and become major players in the media world. Thus it could be said that, at least in an ideal world, the three arms of media—broadcast, print, and online—like their governmental counterparts, monitor and keep each other in check. The media being naturally critical and self-monitoring as well, as evidenced in the PEJ report (above), should course-correct with time. As Chicago Tribune columnist Steven Chapman wrote in his July 27 column, “With 100 days to go [until the election], there will be plenty of chances for McCain to shine and Obama to stumble—and the news coverage will shift accordingly. By Election Day, Obama may feel like he's been worked over by the Hells Angels.”
If any takeaway point can be distilled from this, it is that despite the somewhat murky and inconclusive conclusions that these range of studies, when taken together, have produced, the media monitoring should continue. For only by monitoring the media, can one make assessments about just what constitutes ‘fair and balanced’ coverage, and how much in one candidate’s direction or the other tips the scale.
In this vein, Shawn Healy (Resident Scholar at the McCormick Freedom Museum) and I (as this summer’s Five Freedoms Intern) began a content analysis of major newspaper coverage of the 2008 presidential election. We started monitoring coverage on July 1 and will continue to do so through August 24, the start of the Democratic Presidential Convention. We selected a representative sample of mainstream newspapers to monitor: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal. Our process includes gathering all articles related to the election and campaign (performed through a Proquest search of “Obama,” “McCain,” “Nader,” “Barr,” “McKinney,” and “presidential election”), and then coding these articles for their news frame, tone, story form, apparent bias, and candidate featured.
While we cannot report any results from the study at this point, the results do promise several interesting angles of analysis. It is our hope that this study will provide a unique glimpse at the reporting practices of some of the country’s most prominent mainstream newspapers in the lead up to the political conventions.