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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Monitoring the Media

George Mason University's Center for Media and Public Affairs published the major findings of a study of media coverage of the presidential candidates. It examines the nightly news on CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox (the first half hour of Special Report) from October 1 to December 15.

The results are interesting and consistent with what we generally know about media coverage.

First, the press gave both parties' insurgent candidates - Obama, Edwards, and Huckabee - more positive coverage than the frontrunners. Below is the percentage of positive coverage for all of the major candidates:

McCain: 33%
Giuliani: 39%
Romney: 40%
Clinton: 42%
Thompson: 44%
Huckabee: 50%
Obama: 61%
Edwards: 67%

Most of the insurgent candidates are all grouped at the end of the list. The only exception is McCain - whose negative coverage might be explained by the fact that his campaign belly-flopped in the summer. Generally, this ordering is consistent with what we know about media coverage: it tends to be more generous to the candidates who are behind, and harsher to the candidates who are ahead.

The report also finds that the emphasis of the news coverage is on the horse race and not substance. It finds that:

122 covered candidates' personal backgrounds
188 stories covered policy issues
191 covered campaign tactics
162 covered candidates' standings in the race

Only the first two types of stories have a real effect on vote choices - and they are outnumbered by the latter two. However, I am surprised by the roughly even split between the two groups (310 on substance and personality vs. 353 on the horse race ). While the campaign coverage has not been nearly as substantive as it could be, these numbers are more balanced than I would have guessed.

Finally, the report finds that the Republicans were covered more negatively than the Democrats. Specifically, "On the three broadcast networks, opinion on Democratic candidates split 47% positive vs. 53% negative, while evaluations of Republicans were more negative - 40% positive vs. 60% negative" Conservatives might explain this via recourse to anti-Republican media bias - but there might be other explanations as well. For instance, everybody seems to agree that the Democrats are in the better position heading into 2008. Perhaps the bearish orientation to the GOP has induced more negativity in press coverage.

The exception was Special Report with Brit Hume - which came out to be well balanced. The report finds, "[E]valuations of all Democratic candidates combined were split almost evenly - 51% positive vs. 49% negative, as were all evaluations of GOP candidates - 49% positive vs. 51% negative, producing a perfectly balanced 50-50 split for all candidates of both parties. " Interestingly, this is not the first time Hume's show has been found to be even-handed. A study in the December 2005 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics by UCLA's Tim Groseclose and Missouri's Jeffrey Milyo found that, by their metric, Special Report was one of the fairest shows on television.

-Jay Cost