Election Watch: The Markle Report

February 29, 1996


Media distortions are making the GOP presidential primaries seem more negative and less substantive than they really are, according to a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA). The researchers used a scientific content analysis to compare the television news coverage with the candidates’ actual messages before the New Hampshire primary. They found that the network evening newscasts exaggerated the negative tone of the candidates’ paid ads and speeches and ignored many of the issues the candidates emphasized.

Throughout the election year, the non-profit non-partisan Markle Foundation is underwriting the Markle Presidential Election Watch, a multi-faceted survey of candidates’essages and strategy; the media’s coverage of issues and personalities; and public opinion about the value and substance of this essential democratic process. It is Markle’s hope that the careful eye of the Watch and the relevance of its findings will motivate greater substance in both campaign content and media coverage of it.

For this first “Report Card” CMPA researchers examined the tone and substance of 315 election stories broadcast on the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening newscasts from January 1 through the February 19 New Hampshire primary.

CMPA compared the results to the content of 28 speeches and 59 paid ads that the maior candidates directed at New Hampshire voters.

WHERE’S THE BEEF? – The candidates were three times as substantive as the media coverage. Nearly half of all comments in the GOP candidates’ speeches and ads (49%) concerned policy issues, compared to only one out of six statements (16%) about the candidates on TV news. Among the issues that the candidates emphasized more heavily than the media were the role of government, welfare, education and social security.
OFF AND RUNNING – The amount of horse race news tripled from 1992 levels. Full half (50%) of all TV news soundbites about the candidates dealt with their political prospects instead of their programs. Moreover, reporters usually discussed policy issues in terms of their impact on the race rather than their implications for the public.
OUT, DAMNED SPOT – The candidates were also more positive than the media portrayed them. Nearly two out of three evaluations of all candidates’ (63%) were negative on TV news. In addition, 98% of sources agreed that the campaign’s tone was too negative, and 96% criticized the candidates’ paid ads. But statements in the candidates’ actual ads and speeches were mostly positive in tone, by a three to one ln margin overall. Positive ads outnumbered negative ads by 41% to 30%; the tone of the remainder was mixed.
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING SOUND BITE – The average sound bite by a candidate lasted only seven seconds, an all-time low if it doesn’t increase (and down from 42 seconds in 1968). The nine GOP candidates together received less than one-fifth as much speaking time as the journalists cover’ them (79 minutes vs. 453 minutes.)
According to CMPA president Dr. Robert Lichter, “The real negative campaign this year is being waged by the media. The candidates are talking more about serious issues, but TV reporters spend more time kibitzing and kvetching than covering what they say. When television tries to arbitrate an election instead of narrating it, the voters end up losers.”

February 29, 1996
For More Information Contact:

John Sheehan, Executive Director:
The Center for Media and Public Affairs
2100 L Street, N.W., Suite 300
Washington D.C. 20037
Tel: 202/223-2942
Fax: 202/872-4014

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