December 2, 2008
Contact: Donald Rieck
Study Finds Obama Got Best TV News Coverage Since 1988
Democrats Extended Their Lead Over GOP in Good Press
TV news election coverage of Barack Obama was twice as favorable as John McCain’s and Sarah Palin’s coverage, according to the a new report from the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) Election 2008 NewsWatch. Obama’s coverage was more favorable than any other presidential nominee’s coverage since CMPA began tracking TV election news in 1988. The study also found that Fox News Channel’s coverage was heavily negative toward Obama, but their coverage of McCain and Palin was also negative.
President-elect Barack Obama received 68% positive evaluations on the network evening news shows during the general election. His treatment was twice as favorable as John McCain’s 33% positive and Sarah Palin’s 34% positive evaluations.
Obama’s 68% positive press is the strongest showing CMPA has ever recorded for a presidential candidate, since we began monitoring election news in 1988. He easily eclipsed previous leader John Kerry’s 59% positive evaluations on network news in 2004. Conversely, McCain’s tally of 33% positive evaluations was the worst showing since George H.W. Bush received only 29% positive press in 1988.
Averaged across the all elections since 1988, broadcast network coverage of the six Democratic presidential nominees has been evenly balanced – 50% positive vs. 50% negative press. The average coverage of the six Republican candidates has been 34% positive vs. 66% negative, a margin of 2 to 1 negative.
Obama’s 2 to 1 lead in good press also held true for the candidates’ issue coverage, which includes evaluations of their policies and proposals. A slight majority (53%) of statements about Obama’s policies and proposals were favorable, compared to one out of four (24%) favorable comments about McCain and one out of six (16%) favorable toward Palin. The combined totals were 52% positive issue coverage of the Democrats and 24% positive toward the GOP.
The three broadcast networks were very similar in the tone of their coverage. ABC and CBS had 68% positive coverage of Obama. NBC gave Obama 73% positive coverage. The networks were similar in the negative coverage of McCain. McCain received only 31% positive coverage on NBC, 33% positive coverage on CBS, and 36% positive coverage on ABC.
On Fox News Channel’s “Special Report,” by contrast, coverage of Obama was only 37% positive. His GOP rivals fared little better, as McCain attracted only 41% and Palin 43% positive comments on the Brit Hume anchored show. The partisan difference was greater in FOX’s coverage of the policy debate – comments on McCain’s policies were 61% positive, compared to 33% positive comments about Obama’s policies.
FOX also differed from the broadcast networks in its treatment of the campaign horse race. CMPA’s measure of good press is restricted to evaluations of a candidate’s desirability; we tally comments about his or her viability separately. (The exclusion of these comments from our measure of good and bad press, along with the more positive evaluations that his policies received, suggest that Obama’s more favorable coverage on the network broadcasts did not simply reflect the “good news” of his lead in the polls.)
On the network newscasts, the Democratic ticket received 91% positive comments about their standing and prospects in the horse race, compared to only 31% positive comments about the Republicans – a margin of 60 percentage points. On FOX the Democratic margin was smaller – 73% positive horse race evaluations compared to 49% positive evaluations of the Republican ticket – a 24 percentage point margin.
Policy debates held a prominent place in TV news coverage of the 2008 election. On the networks, policy issues were the number one topic of discussion, appearing in 31% of all stories, barely edging out number two - the candidates’ strategies for election (also 31% of stories). Rounding out the top ten topics were the horse race (24%), the candidates’ conduct on the campaign trail (10%), the GOP’s Vice-presidential choice (7%), the debates (7%), the candidates’ personal backgrounds (6%), their friends and families (6%), their professional backgrounds (4%), and the election process (3%). The topical agenda was very similar on FOX, apart from heavier coverage there of the electoral process, which included GOP charges of vote fraud by ACORN (7% of FOX stories) and the news media, including charges of partisan bias (6% of stories).
Although prominently featured, the policy debate was narrowly focused. Spurred by the economic crisis, economic concerns overwhelmed all other policy issues. On the three broadcast networks, there were 174 campaign-related discussions of economic issues, compared to 28 discussions of foreign policy, 17 on electoral reform, and 16 on health issues. The Iraq War was discussed only 10 times, and health care reform stimulated 11 on-air discussions. The issue agenda was almost identical on FOX.