Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The press has “battered” President Bush this election season, according to a Project for Excellence in Journalism analysis of 817 print and broadcast stories that ran between Oct. 1 and Oct. 14.

Mr. Bush “suffered strikingly more negative press coverage than challenger John Kerry,” according to the study, which will be released today.

“Overall, 59 percent of Bush-dominated stories were clearly negative in nature,” while “just 25 percent of Kerry stories were decidedly negative,” according to the study.

The District-based group was succinct in defining a negative tone, reasoning that if combined headlines and content contained statements that were at least two-to-one critical of the politician in question, the story was deemed negative.

Both print and broadcast news organizations were critical of Mr. Bush.

Newspapers were the hardest on the president: 68 percent of daily stories or editorials about Mr. Bush were classified as negative, compared with only 26 percent of the stories about Mr. Kerry.

More than half of network TV news reports criticized Mr. Bush, while just 17 percent of the stories about Mr. Kerry were negative.

“The tendency toward negative tone stands out because it suggests the press is prone to act as an enabler, accomplice or conduit for negative campaigning,” the study stated, though it did not offer any explanation for “the marked discrepancy between Kerry and Bush” in the coverage.

The answer “is beyond the scope of this study and would require a larger examination of tone throughout the campaign,” the group said.

Still, it characterized the press as opinionated.

“The study reinforces the sense that the press, at least the political press, has become highly interpretive and even judgmental in its approach,” the study noted.

The analysis found that only 14 percent of the stories recounted the day’s events in what it considered “a straightforward and factual manner.”

Another 55 percent of the reports offered accounts based on insider politics and candidate tactics, 13 percent dealt with clear policy, 9 percent dealt with such issues as the economy or terrorism, and 7 percent dwelt on “candidate fitness.”

The study also determined that almost three-quarters of the stories emphasized the impact of events and commentary on politicians rather than on voters, noting “the effort to redirect political coverage more toward the concerns of citizens apparently has not significantly influenced the way coverage is constructed.”

The group analyzed stories from the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Miami Herald and the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, plus morning and evening news shows on three networks — CNN’s “NewsNight with Aaron Brown,” PBS’ “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and Fox News’ “Special Report with Brit Hume.”

In the 2000 election, a similar study from the group found that 49 percent of stories about Mr. Bush and 56 percent about then-Vice President Al Gore were negative.

“This is the mirror image of what happened four years ago, when then-Governor Bush benefited from coverage in the closing weeks,” the study stated.

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