Comparing News and Editorial Coverage of the 1996 Presidential Nominating Campaign.


Most studies on media coverage of presidential campaigns build on Thomas Patterson's argument that the "game" schema guides the selection and interpretation of campaign events.(1) Journalists view candidates as players in a game who are principally concerned with winning. The focus is on who is ahead, who is behind, and how the game is being played. Candidates' actions and statements, including their policy positions, are seen as calculated behaviors intended to improve their chances of winning. These observations, however, are based on analyses of news coverage. Scholars have neglected commentary coverage of politics, even though commentaries are a significant part of print media coverage. There are good reasons to expect differences between news and commentary coverage of campaigns. Keeping opinions out of the news has been a central component of objective journalism since the early twentieth century.(2) Unconstrained by norms of objectivity, editorial staff and columnists are free to choose sides, present one-sided arguments, and let ideological considerations guide their writing. On the other hand, the differences between news and commentary coverage of politics may be fading since news coverage has become more interpretive and critical of the candidates and their actions.(3) Just how different are news and commentary coverage of presidential campaigns? Comparing the quality and quantity of candidate coverage in news and commentary items should give us a fuller picture of the information available to voters.

The media play a powerful role as intermediaries between political leaders and the public.(4) The media's role is especially important in the nominating campaign. Because most people are poorly informed about the candidates, what the media say and write about candidates has considerable potential to influence voters' judgments about the candidates.(5) By portraying candidates more or less favorably and as more or less likely to win the nomination, the media influence at least some primary voters' decisions to support certain candidates rather than others by altering their strategic calculations and attitudes toward the candidates.(6) How the media act as intermediaries and how they affect presidential nominations are questions worth studying.

Patterns of Campaign Coverage

The limits of space and time make bias inevitable in media coverage. The form of the media's bias can be found in the themes or frames used by journalists to select and interpret events. The predominant frame in campaign coverage is the game schema where journalists view politics as a strategic game in which politicians compete for strategic advantage.(7) Viewing the campaign as a game, journalists pay more attention to the "horse race" and to campaign strategy than to substantive policy issues or candidate qualifications.(8) The amount of coverage given to candidates reflects journalists' expectations of candidates' chances of winning the race.(9) The tone of candidate coverage also follows a candidate's fortunes in and at the polls, although with greater variation as a result of attention given to scandals, blunders, and other conflicts.(10)

Four major story lines pervade the game schema. The first is the front-runner story line. Front-runners receive the most coverage, but the coverage tends to be critical as reporters focus on the candidates' efforts to stay on top.(11) The second story line is that of the likely losers--candidates judged by the media to be unlikely to win the nomination.(12) Unless or until they exceed expectations in or at the polls, likely losers receive little attention from the media.(13) Likely loser coverage tends to be critical as reporters focus on the candidates' personal or programmatic flaws and problems with the candidates' strategies.(14) Journalists treat candidates who fall in between the extremes as "plausibles" who might break through to win the nomination.(15) Coverage of the candidates shifts with perceived changes in their chances of winning. The third theme in the game schema is the bandwagon story line. Candidates who perform better than expected in the race attract more coverage than anyone else, and their coverage is relatively free from critical scrutiny.(16) Bandwagon coverage focuses on, and presumably contributes to, candidates' rise in the polls. Greater media coverage increases name recognition (especially for lesser known candidates), which in turn may increase perceptions of candidates' viability and ultimately increase candidates' ability to raise campaign funds and attract supporters.(17) Candidates who drop in or at the polls receive "losing ground" coverage in which the amount of coverage declines and the tone of coverage becomes highly critical as journalists focus on reasons why candidates' support is fading.(18)

Although these patterns of news coverage have been shown to be robust across several elections, there has been little comparison of news and commentary coverage of campaigns. We know that commentators and reporters write for somewhat different audiences and for different purposes, but do these differences actually influence what is printed? Does the strategic game frame commentary coverage of campaigns as it does news coverage, or are columnists guided by some other framework(s)? Do columnists pay attention to a different set of topics compared to reporters? How do news and commentaries cover issues? Answering these questions should give us a fuller picture of print media coverage of campaigns.

Data and Methods

To assess patterns of political coverage in news and commentary items, I analyzed coverage of the candidates during the early 1996 presidential nominating campaign in the national editions of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Although most people get their information about campaigns from television, a study of newspaper coverage still is useful. Newspaper coverage matters more for primary voters than for the general public. Politically attentive people, who are more likely to participate in nominating elections, also are more likely to read newspapers.(19) Analyzing political coverage in the Times is particularly useful because it serves as something of a barometer for the national media; other print and broadcast media take cues from the Times with respect to what events and stories are important.(20) The Tribune was selected for purposes of comparison and reliability assessment.(21) I limited the study to these two newspapers because of the substantial time involved in a content analysis of the newspapers, which was performed manually after an initial identification of items in a Lexis/Nexis search. I analyzed candidate coverage from January 1 through March 15, 1996. By then, reporters viewed Senator Bob Dole as the presumptive nominee in light of his cumulated delegates, endorsements, and polls showing him with a growing lead among likely primary voters. By mid-March, the media generally viewed Patrick Buchanan, Dole's main rival, as a protest candidate.

The primary quantitative unit of analysis is the "paragraph-mention," which measures the number of paragraphs in which a candidate was mentioned or referred to by name or pronoun. One drawback of using paragraph-mentions is that more than one candidate could be mentioned in a paragraph. The measure is less precise than counting the number of lines or column inches mentioning a candidate, although these measures also include multiple candidate references. The problem is unavoidable because horse race journalism is inherently comparative. The main reason for coding paragraphs rather than lines is the greater efficiency of coding this unit. Other quantitative measures of coverage included the number of headlines and items mentioning a candidate and the placement of an item on the front or inside pages. The percentage of "item-mentions" indicates a candidate's centrality in the race by measuring the extent to which the candidate is being discussed in coverage of other candidates. The Times included 975 items with 10,518 paragraphs mentioning or referring to one of the candidates for the 1996 presidential nominations. The Tribune included 642 items with 5,916 paragraphs mentioning one of the candidates.

To measure the tone of coverage, I made a judgment about whether the overall tone of an item was mixed, favorable, or unfavorable to a candidate.(22) I used Robinson and Sheehan's rules in making these judgments, with two exceptions.(23) Unlike Robinson and Sheehan, I included statements by the candidates and other partisans in coding coverage tone. Journalists often select sources and quotes to express views that their editors generally will not allow the reporters to assert directly on their own. The selection of sources and quotes constitutes a form of bias that should be included in the coding of coverage tone. I also included horse race stories in the coding of coverage tone. A thorough measure of coverage tone should include such items. Theoretically, horse race coverage should be included in the measurement of tone because news about candidate viability affects some voters' decisions to support one candidate over another.(24) As a practical matter, excluding horse race items is problematic because stories frequently mention other aspects of the campaign in addition to the horse race. These measurement changes do limit the comparability of this study with previous ones. Including horse race items, for example, inflates the number of favorable items for winning candidates because journalists tend to view winning more favorably.

The categories of coverage included horse race stories; campaign strategy and tactics; candidate campaign themes; scandals, gaffes, or flaps; conflict within the party or between the candidates; campaign finance; candidate character; candidate accomplishments; other campaign stories (a category of miscellaneous topics such as the media's coverage of the...

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