Election Watch: The Second Report

February 16, 1996

FEBRUARY 16, 1996

CONTACT: Bob Mulligan
Study Finds Media Love the Horse Race, Hate the Way It’s Run
TV news coverage of the Iowa contest was 2 to 1 negative toward Steve Forbes but 2 to 1 positive toward the other GOP candidates, according to a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA). Researchers also found that the network evening news shows covered the horse race twice as heavily as the issues, while averaging twelve complaints per night about the negative campaign in Iowa.

These are the latest findings from CMPA’s ongoing ElectionWatch study of Campaign ’96 news. This report examines the focus and tone of 127 campaign stories (4 hours 7 minutes of airtime) broadcast on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news from February 1 through the February 12 Iowa caucuses.

BAD NEWS FOR FORBES: Over two out of three sources (68%) criticized Steve Forbes, while the rest of the field attracted 67% positive soundbites. Dole’s coverage was 57% positive, Buchanan’s 83% positive, and Alexander’s 100% positive. Forbes got bad press for his flat tax proposal, his negative ads, heavy spending, and inexperience. Example: “The flat tax is one giant, untested theory. One economist suggested… we test it out someplace like Albania.” (Eric Engberg, CBS, 2/8)

HATE THE CAMPAIGN: Criticism of the race outnumbered praise by a 20 to 1 margin. Among 144 negative soundbites heard in only twelve days, the leading complaints targeted the campaign’s negative tone (59) and the frequency of paid ads (39). Example: “Any serious discussion of the issues is lost in this maw of ‘yes you did’ and ‘no you didn’t’.” (Bob Schieffer, CBS, 2/12).

BUT CAN’T TAKE YOUR EYES OFF IT: The networks devoted twice as many stories (60) to the horse race as the candidates’ policies (30). Tax reform (10) and abortion (9) were the only policy issues to attract more than 3 stories.

NEWS BRIEFS: The average length of a candidate’s soundbite was only 7.3 seconds. So far in 1996, the nine GOP candidates have spoken for a combined 56 minutes of airtime, compared to 5 hours 45 minutes for the journalists who cover them.

ElectionWatch is published weekly during the primary and general election season by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), a nonpartisan and nonprofit research and educational organization. CMPA measures the tone of news coverage by examining all broadcast or published statements from reporters and their news sources. Major support for this research comes from the John and Mary Markle Foundation. Results of CMPA research from Campaign ’92 and Campaign ’88 are now available in Good Intentions Make Bad News: Why Americans Hate Campaign Journalism (Rowman and Littlefield, 1995)

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