February 1, 2008

Press Release
February 1, 2008
Contact: Donald Rieck

NBC Is Toughest on Hillary; FOX Has Heaviest Coverage

Hillary Clinton is getting the worst press and Barack Obama the best press of any major presidential candidate, and Bill Clinton is also getting negative reviews, while the gap in good press between John McCain and Mitt Romney is narrowing, according to a new study of TV news election coverage by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The study also finds that FOX’s evening news show had the most coverage of policy issues and the least coverage of the campaign horse race.

These results are from CMPA’s 2008 ElectionNewsWatch Project. They are based on a scientific content analysis of 765 election news stories (22 hours 15 minutes of airtime) that aired on the flagship evening news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX (the first 30 minutes of “Special Report with Brit Hume”, which is most like the network news shows in content and presentation) from December 16, 2007 through January 27, 2008.


Hillary Pilloried?

Since mid-December, when the presidential candidates turned their full attention to the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Barack Obama has led the race for good press and Sen. Hillary Clinton has lagged the farthest behind. From Dec 16 through Jan 27 five out of six on-air evaluations of Obama (84%) have been favorable, compared to a bare majority (51%) of evaluations of Mrs. Clinton. Examples:

“[Obama’s] message is one of change and reconciliation, not protest and looking back at old wounds.” – Donna Brazile, ABC

“In the face of two staggering defeats, two questions loom: Is Hillary’s campaign in crisis? And is a massive shakeup necessary?” – Brit Hume, FOX

The gap in good press has widened since the New Hampshire primary, with Clinton dropping to 47% positive comments and Obama holding steady at 83% positive. NBC’s coverage has been the most critical of Clinton – nearly 2 to 1 negative (36% positive and to 64% negative) Conversely, ABC’s coverage was most supportive — nearly 2 to 1 positive (63% v. 37%). CBS and FOX were more balanced – 50% positive comments on FOX and 56% positive on CBS. Examples:

“[Bill Clinton’s] prominence in the campaign underscores Obama’s key argument that he represents the future; Hillary Clinton is the past. – John Harwood, NBC

“[Sen. Clinton] is the person that can best keep the country going and improve things.” – voter, ABC

Bill Bashed

Once he hit the hustings for Hillary, Bill Clinton attracted more attention (27 stories) than also-rans Rudy Giuliani (21) and John Edwards (18). But 74% of comments were critical of him. Example:

“[Hillary] should be the focal point… I think Bill Clinton is a little too involved.” – voter, CBS

McCain Express Slows

John McCain leads the Republican race for good press with 3 to 1 positive evaluations (73% positive v 27% negative) compared to only a minority of favorable comments (47%) for Mitt Romney. (Huckabee is in between with 57% positive comments.) Since the New Hampshire primary, however, their fortunes have changed, with Romney getting 75% and McLain only 58% positive comments. Examples:

“Voters … are buying his economic message, the can-do CEO to turn around the country like he did the Olympics.” – Bill Whitaker, CBS

“John McCain and his agents want to restrict free speech in America…” – voter, NBC

“We need [McCain] big time!” – voter, CBS

Here’s The Good News

Overall the presidential field has received more good than bad press – 62% combined positive comments on the Democrats and 58% positive about the Republicans. The broadcast networks and FOX both treated the Democrats slightly better than the Republicans, but FOX’s coverage was more negative toward candidates of both parties — only 53% favorable evaluations of all candidates combined vs. 63% favorable evaluations by the other networks.

Where’s the Beef?

Only 1 in 5 stories (20%) contained a discussion of any policy issue. By contrast, a majority of stories (57%) discussed the strategy and tactics of the contenders and nearly half (47%) discussed their prospects for becoming the party’s nominee, i.e., the campaign horse race.

Economic issues dominated the news agenda The most heavily covered issue was the condition and prospects of the economy with 36 stories, followed by the war in Iraq (20 stories), race relations (18), electoral reform (13), illegal immigration (12), unemployment (12), and taxes (10).

The Fox Factor

Perhaps surprisingly, coverage of the candidates on Fox News Channel’s “Special Report with Brit Hume” was very similar to that of the broadcast networks. FOX’s coverage of Hillary Clinton was evenly balanced – 50% positive and 50% negative comments, compared to 51% positive and 49% negative on the “big three” networks. The tone of FOX’s coverage of Romney and Obama was also within one percentage point of the broadcast networks.

Instead, FOX stands out for having the heaviest and most issue-oriented election coverage. The first half-hour of “Special Report” has devoted 7 hours 52 minutes to election news since mid-December, an average of over 11 minutes per night, nearly half the newscast after commercial breaks. By contrast, the broadcast networks have averaged 5 hrs 8 min, or seven minutes a night.

FOX was also twice as substantive as the broadcast networks. Almost one-third of all stories on FOX (30%) dealt with policy issues, nearly double the proportion (16%) on the networks. FOX also carried less coverage of the horse race and candidate tactics than any of broadcast networks.

CMPA has monitored every presidential election since 1988 using the same methodology, in which trained coders tally all mentions of candidates and issues and all evaluations of candidates. We report the evaluations by non-partisan sources, excluding comments by the candidates and campaigns about each other, because research shows that non-partisan sources have the most influence on public opinion, and they are also more subject to the discretion of reporters. However, we maintain data files on partisan evaluations as well.

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