By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
Two stories dominated the year, the war in Iraq and the election, and both were caught in the maelstrom of debate over media bias.
The charge that coverage of the situation in Iraq was decidedly negative does not bear up under scrutiny.
Over all, across all media studied, stories about the war were just slightly more likely to carry a clearly negative tone than a positive one (25% negative versus 20% positive). The majority of stories, however, had no decided tone at all. The largest number, 35%, were neutral, and another 20% were about multiple subjects for which tone did not apply.
Those findings are based on 16 newspapers, four nightly newscasts, three network morning news shows, nine different cable programs, and nine Web sites examined for four weeks through the course of the year.1
Different outlets also varied in their coverage. Newspapers tended to mirror the totals over all. But the three nightly newscasts and PBS tended to be more negative than positive, while network morning news was the reverse. On cable, the news channels themselves varied. Fox was twice as likely to be positive as negative. CNN and MSNBC were more evenly split.
When it came to the campaign, on the other hand, the criticism that George Bush got worse coverage than John Kerry is supported by the data.2 Looking across all media, campaign coverage that focused on Bush was three times as negative as coverage of Kerry (36% versus 12%) It was also less likely to be positive (20% positive Bush stories, 30% for Kerry).
That also meant Bush coverage was less likely to be neutral (44% of Bush stories, 58% for Kerry).
We continue to see significant differences in the nature of the content of different media. On network TV news, for instance, what the viewer gets will depend on the time of day, with mornings and prime-time magazines offering significantly lighter fare than evening news programs. Viewers of PBS will see a different range of concerns from those who watch cable, where entertainment and celebrity are a notable part of the agenda. In magazines, the big new growth area is in publications that concern not public life at all, but shopping.
Beyond the question of topic agenda, there are also measurable differences in the nature of the reporting in different media, even under the same corporate roof.
Cable news, for instance, is a more thinly reported medium than its rivals. The story segments include fewer sources, tend to be more one-sided and feature more opinion from the journalists.
There are also distinct differences among the three cable channels. On Fox News, the journalists themselves offer their opinions, without attribution to any reporting, in seven out of ten stories. That happens in less than one story out of ten on CNN, and in fewer than three stories out of ten on MSNBC.
Fox’s stories are more deeply sourced than those of its cable rivals, but are also more one-sided.
The traditional nightly newscasts on commercial network TV stand out for their depth of reporting and their reliance on taped, edited packages. The differences among the three newscasts on the commercial networks are slight. PBS’s NewsHour, however, is noticeably even more thorough in its sourcing. Morning news, meanwhile, is not as deeply sourced.
Newspapers continue to be distinguished for the depth, range and variety of their content, even on their front pages. One reason is that newspapers have more reporters and space – both factors that are threatened if print cannot figure out a way to bring in more money online, where its audience is moving.
News Web sites still mostly resemble newspapers and make only limited use of the technology’s potential by including links to video, graphics, or photos or by allowing users to search, customize and manipulate data. Alternative Web sites abound, and the most popular, Google and Yahoo! use more advanced technology but offer no additional authority over the information they dispense.
In magazines, while Time and Newsweek have continued their move toward soft news topics, other magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and even Harper’s have moved in, – tying their coverage more closely to current events and even breaking news themselves.
1. The cross-media comparisons for coverage of the war in Iraq included 2,187 stories.
2. The analysis of election coverage begins after March 1 (Super Tuesday) after John Kerry emerged as the all-but-official Democratic candidate. The cross-media comparisons of campaign coverage included stories focused at least 50% on one candidate or the other so that deriving a sense of tone about the candidate was logical. Those totaled 250 stories. The findings, moreover, reinforce what the Project found in a separate study that looked at tone in the final month of the campaign, surrounding the debates, and in a pre-convention study using a different methodology that mapped coverage of different character themes about the candidates. The findings on tone also mirror those of Robert Lichter and the Center on Media and Public Affairs, which employs a different approach to studying tone.