Study, Poll: News Coverage Favors Obama
July 22, 2008 - 5:16 PMAlmost half of America’s voters think the dominant media coverage of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is biased in his favor and reporters want Obama to win the presidential election in November.
The Rasmussen Reports poll released Monday showed that nearly half of voters – 49 percent – think reporters are trying to help Obama win the election. Only 14 percent of voters think the media are trying to help Republican candidate John McCain (Ariz.) win the race.
The poll was conducted before it was revealed, for instance, that The New York Times refused to run an op-ed piece by McCain about the Iraq war one week after it ran an op-ed by Obama about the topic.
Given the long Democratic primary between Obama and Clinton, it might be expected that the Republican McCain would enjoy less of the media spotlight. But even after the presidential campaign became a two-man race, Obama still overwhelmed his Republican opponent in news coverage, according to a new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Some observers, however, do not think the media are in Obama’s corner.
Television pundits have highlighted Obama’s policy shifts far more than McCain’s, said Isabel Macdonald, spokeswoman for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal media watchdog group. Further, she said, McCain referred to the media as “my base,” during his 2000 run for the presidency.
“The bigger picture is that the media is not really serving the public very well in this election by letting issues slide with the McCain campaign while emphasizing trivial issues damaging to Obama’s campaign,” Macdonald told CNSNews.com.
But since Obama secured the nomination in early June, press coverage has not been equal, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), a research organization that studies the news media.
The PEJ study of 48 different news organizations evaluated 300 political stories in newspapers, magazines, and on television to determine whether each candidate is a significant part of a story, or part of more than 25 percent of the stories. The study was conducted from June 9 through July 13, after it had become a two-man contest.
From July 7 through 13, Obama was a significant presence in more than three quarters – 77 percent – of all news stories, according to the PEJ study. McCain was a significant presence in less than half – 48 percent – of all stories, the study said. From July 14 through July 20, Obama’s share increased to 83 percent, while McCain reached 52 percent, according to the PEJ study.
Reasons for the extensive coverage of Obama are that he is a historic candidate as the first black presidential nominee of a major party while his charismatic rallies have drawn much larger crowds than any other candidate, PEJ Director Tom Rosentiel said.
“Critics will argue a bias, a subtle rooting going on,” Rosentiel told CNSNews.com. “I can’t say if that is or isn’t the motivation. We have data that demonstrate a coverage gap.”
But “if a gap is so consistent and so pronounced,” Rosentiel said, it may warrant evaluation by the media.
Major news organizations are now starting to acknowledge the coverage concentration on Obama.
The New York Times ran a story last Thursday in its “A” section noting that CBS’s Katie Couric, ABC’s Charles Gibson, and NBC’s Brian Williams are accompanying Obama on his trip through the Middle East and Europe.
However, the Times story reported, the three networks did not send their anchors abroad on McCain’s international trips and at times did not even send a correspondent.
The Times story further reported that Obama has received 114 minutes of network TV news time compared to 48 minutes for McCain.
“The extraordinary coverage planned for Mr. Obama’s trip, though in part solicited by aides, reflect how the candidate remains an object of fascination in the news media,” the story said.
The Washington Post’s media critic Howard Kurtz said last week on CNN that “the imbalance doesn’t end” with coverage of Obama’s foreign travels.
“Obama has received more than twice as much air time as McCain on the network evening newscasts since last month, although more coverage doesn't always mean positive coverage,” Kurtz said.
“Obama, who is on the cover of Newsweek again this week, has been on Time or Newsweek’s cover a dozen times in the last three years – more than twice the amount of McCain - and in some venues, Obama and his wife Michelle on the cover of Us Weekly, Obama and his family on ‘Access Hollywood.’ It’s not even close.”
Speaking about his foreign travels on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Obama said, “The objective of this trip was to have substantive discussions with people like President Karzai or Prime Minister Maliki or President Sarkozy or others who I expect to be dealing with over the next eight to 10 years.”
A president can serve no more than eight years in office.
Other misstatements have included Obama, speaking of his many campaign trips, saying, “I’ve been to 57 states, I think one’s left to go.”
Obama also said his uncle fought in World War II and was “part of the American brigade that helped to liberate Auschwitz,” even though it was the Soviet army that liberated the Nazi prison camp.
Some of those comments were enough to prompt ABC News reporter Jake Tapper to call Obama a “gaffe machine.”
While acknowledging that most of these gaffes have received little media attention, Rosentiel said that does not necessarily represent a bias.
“Gaffes tend to get coverage if they’re perceived to be attached to a larger question about the candidate,” Rosentiel said. “When George Bush in 2000 couldn’t name a couple of world leaders, it played into his perceived inexperience with international affairs.”
Rosentiel cited a gaffe earlier this year from McCain in which the Republican confused Shi’ites and Sunnis in a press conference. He said this gaffe did not have legs because few reporters question McCain’s foreign policy credentials.
“If Obama had another gaffe that painted him as elitist and who doesn’t understand blue collar voters or religious voters, it would get coverage,” Rosentiel predicted.
The storyline aspect has been very beneficial to McCain, as media are willing to excuse his flip-flops as another act of being a maverick, Macdonald said.
“The media’s narrative of McCain makes every position he takes tenable,” Macdonald said. “The media’s narrative of McCain is tremendously lenient, which is quite unusual.”
Rosentiel added that just because the volume of coverage is high does not mean all the coverage is good.
“The story lines that have come have not been unequivocally good,” he said. “There is a growing line about his flip-flops and that he is tacking to the center,” said Rosentiel. “There have been stories about ‘is Obama a secret Muslim’ or that he’s not patriotic.”
During the primary campaign, after the “Saturday Night Live” parodies of a fawning press corps for Obama, news coverage became more critical. Rosentiel said the press gave more critical coverage to Obama, with stories about his controversial church and other associations.
“It’s possible this will cause the press to reassess its coverage of Obama,” Rosentiel said. “It clearly happened in the primary, in tone of coverage.”