Third Party & Independents Archives

Read between the lines

New York – February 13, 2004. The first primaries/caucuses are a thing of the past, along with the once promising Clark candidature. From media “prince charming ” in the first weeks of 2004, Dean became a goofy toad that nobody wants to kiss anymore. Kerry got the publicity he needed after his first victories, and nobody could have expected that so much coverage on “being a winner” - coverage that usually tends to turn sour easily - would bring even more support. Some standouts of these last weeks where not surprising at all. Reading between the lines, the media not only reported each advance as a horse race, but also made its own bets.

Media Tenor, an international media analysis institute, has been monitoring and analyzing the coverage of the Democratic primaries in opinion-leading U.S. media. Every report in which George W. Bush or one of the Democratic contenders is portrayed or quoted for a minimum of five seconds or five lines was analyzed in regard the most frequent issues, the main protagonists and the tone of the coverage, among other factors, with the aim of measuring media bias. In the analysis of the coverage of the last month, many findings illustrate the close proximity between trends in media coverage and public opinion.

Telling the Dean story with ups and downs

The political coverage in January 2004 was characterized by two events: First, U.S. media replaced their previous favorite, Howard Dean, with John Kerry. Secondly, President Bush came under greater pressure.

Television adopts Kerry, voters follow

Howard Dean, who started the year as the media's Democratic frontrunner, was the biggest 'loser' in the month of January. No surprise: even in the weeks before the Iowa Caucus, Dean did not receive the same positive coverage as in prior weeks. His support among Democratic voters subsequently declined.

Following the Iowa Caucus, Kerry leaped ahead from among the group of contenders. Starting out with 10% less coverage than Dean (as a share of the overall coverage), the number of reports on Kerry quadrupled until his share of the coverage totaled almost 40%, with extremely positive
coverage in TV news in particular. As a result of this significant support from the media, his approval rating among polled Democrats improved, from 11% before to 30% after Iowa.
At the same time, interest in Dean decreased after his loss in Iowa at the same rate at which the media awareness of Kerry increased. After Iowa, the share of Democrats who considered voting for Dean's nomination decreased by 50%; his overall media ratings were negative.

TV criticism leads to drop in approval ratings

At the beginning of the year, the trend in media coverage turned against the President. According to the Princeton Survey Research, the approval rating of George W. Bush fell to 48% negative statements at the beginning of February. Media Tenor's analysis additionally shows that his approval rating was dropping in accordance with the tone of his media coverage. As the coverage of the President became increasingly more negative, the opinion poll followed the direction of the media coverage with a two-week lag.

CBS clearly positioning itself in opposition Bush

The rating of President Bush has been particularly critical in TV news, especially on CBS, where 33.9% of all reports on the President were negative, despite the fact that, just one year ago, Dan Rather and his colleagues covered Bush’s Iraq War in a notably positive tone.

But CBS not only clearly positioned itself against President Bush, it also depicted the current Democratic frontrunner John Kerry in a particularly positive tone. In all reports on Kerry on the CBS Evening News, 40.6% of statements on or by Kerry were positive in tone.

Little interest in policy issues

Television news generally showed little interest in policy-related information. Although the share of policy-related coverage was generally higher in the Wall Street Journal, it still made up only approximately 40% of the overall coverage of the candidates and the President.

Policy-related information remains the President's domain. In the coverage of George W. Bush, 60.9% of all statements refer to policy issues. Little information was presented on the Democratic candidates’ stances on specific issues - especially when it came to the current ‘winners.’ Instead, the Democrats' campaign efforts and their personalities were frequently the focal point of the coverage. Dean in particular had to face increasing doubts of his character and personal qualities.

The complete report can be downloaded from Media Tenor's website.

[Editor's Note: Isadora Badi submitted this report by email to WatchBlog and she may not be available to respond to comments here.]

Posted by WatchBlog Manager at February 13, 2004 3:32 PM