Election Watch: The Third Report

February 21, 1996

FEBRUARY 21, 1996

CONTACT: Bob Mulligan

Study Finds Much Criticism but Little Substance in Campaign News

TV news came down hard on the candidates but went easy on the substance during the New Hampshire race, according to a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA). Researchers found that three out of four on-air comments about the GOP candidates were negative, but less than one-fourth of the coverage dealt with their policies, proposals, or qualifications for the presidency.

These are the latest findings from CMPA’s ongoing scientific content analysis of Campaign ’96 news coverage. This report examines the topics and tone of all 78 campaign stories (2 hours 30 minutes of airtime) broadcast on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news during the New Hampshire primary campaign from February 13 – 19.

THE CANDIDATES ARE BAD… Nearly three out of four comments by sources and reporters (73%) were critical of the various candidates. Dole’s coverage was 85% negative, Alexander’s 80% negative, and Buchanan’s 61% negative. (These totals exclude comments by the candidates themselves.) Examples: “Most of [Dole’s] appearances have been as flat as his native Kansas.” (John Cochran, ABC, 2/19); “Buchanan is no more an outsider than he is a Democrat.” (Jim Wooten, ABC, 2/19) So far in 1996, every major GOP contender has gotten more bad press than good press by this measure. The exception is darkhorse Richard Lugar, with 88% positive press.

BUT THE CAMPAIGN’S EVEN WORSE: The networks criticized the quality of the New Hampshire campaign even more heavily — 88% negative comments, or ten complaints per night on average. So far this year the networks have aired 117 negative soundbites on the campaign’s negativity and 54 additional criticisms of the paid TV ads. Example: “there is enough mud being tossed around in the Republican presidential campaign to keep a health spa supplied for a lifetime.” (Peter Jennings, ABC, 2/16)

WHERE’S THE BEEF? Only 17 out of 78 stories (22%) discussed any of the candidates’ policies, proposals, or qualifications. The leading news topics were: Campaign trail conduct (37 stories), horse race standings (32), and campaign strategy and tactics (27). The top stories were the campaign’s negative tone (11 stories), allegations of Buchanan’s bigotry (6) and extremism (4), Dole’s negative ads (4), and Alexander’s past finances (4).

SHORTER SOUND BITES: So far in 1996, candidate soundbites are averaging only 7 seconds, compared to 8 seconds in 1992 and 9 in 1988. The nine GOP candidates have received a combined 79 minutes of airtime, compared to 453 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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