Horse-Race Season

It's early, but the press is already behind

It’s amazing, but perhaps not all that surprising. As critics continue to pick apart the media’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and blogs on both the right and the left continue to duke it out over how the press frames the domestic debate over the war, at this point in the current election cycle there has been precious little scrutiny of the superficial coverage being given to this year’s crop of presidential contenders.

It’s coming. The Project for Excellence in Journalism has just published its new report, which shows just how bad the coverage of the presidential race has been so far. The study—which reviewed 1,742 campaign stories between January and May of this year from forty-eight different print, online, network television, cable television, and radio news outlets—shows just how lightweight much of the coverage has been:

In all, 63% of the campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign. That is nearly four times the number of stories about the personal backgrounds of the candidates (17%) or the candidates’ ideas and policy proposals (15%). And just 1% of stories examined the candidates’ records or past public performance, the study found.

The most telling stat here is that last one: that only one percent of the stories published through May actually bothered to assess the record of the candidates! To be fair, this data point isn’t quite as damning as it might originally appear, since the fields on both sides of the ideological aisle have up to this point been so crowded. Still, numbers aside as we’ll see a little later, this is in keeping with how little attention the press regularly pays to actual issues and platforms at all levels of the campaign. It’s not just a statistic, it’s a disease.

The study also found that

just 12% of stories examined were presented in a way that explained how citizens might be affected by the election, while nearly nine-out-of-ten stories (86%) focused on matters that largely impacted only the parties and the candidates. Those numbers, incidentally, match almost exactly the campaign-centric orientation of coverage found on the eve of the primaries eight years ago.

This isn’t anything new. In fact, after every campaign there are promises from the press to do better, to move beyond the horse race, blah, blah, blah. Looking back at the period of the debates between Gore and Bush in the 2000 race, PEJ found that of the stories they monitored, 22 percent were debate analyses, 15 percent were about “battleground states,” 12 percent were about “campaign strategy,” and 8 percent were about “momentum & media.” The rest—from foreign policy to domestic policy to health care to taxes—clocked in at less than 8 percent of the coverage each. In other words, things that would affect the American public directly, and things they would need to know in order to make informed decisions, got short shrift.

During the 2004 debates between Bush and Kerry, the PEJ found that just 13 percent of stories “were framed around explaining the policy proposals of the candidates or their differences in approach, be it Iraq, the war on terror, taxes, the economy, jobs, stem cell research, health care or any of the other range of foreign and domestic matters.” This looks even worse considering that a whopping 55 percent of the stories focused on the politics of politics—in other words, the internal campaign fights and party dustups that so fascinate the Washington press corps and the cocktail party circuit in which it is immersed. To expect a better performance in 2008 would be asking too much, it seems.

We’re getting what we’ve always been given from the big names in the DC media universe: spin, insider accounts that don’t mean anything to those living outside the Beltway, and stories that interest only those who already know the score. Nice job, guys.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.