The Nightly News Nightmare: Network Television's Coverage of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1988-2000.

Author:Dulio, David A.
Position:Book Review
 
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By Stephen J. Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.228 pp.

The grave mistakes made on network news broadcasts during the debacle that was the coverage of Election Night 2000 were, as Farnsworth and Lichter illustrate, a microcosm of the performance of the major media outlets' coverage of presidential campaigns. The Nightly News Nightmare shows that the many problems associated with coverage of the 2000 campaign are not confined to one election; at least since the 1988 campaign, evening news programs on the major networks have done "an increasingly poor job of covering presidential elections" (p. 2).

Farnsworth and Lichter provide important insight into a phenomenon often difficult to study systematically, largely because presidential elections only come around every four years. The two offer a thorough inspection of the many broad issues surrounding media coverage of campaigns, such as voters' perceptions and opinions of the media, media effects, the sources of information the public utilizes, and negativity in campaigns. Yet, the real power of their work lies in the rich data they employ: a content analysis of "every campaign news segment that aired on the evening news programs of ABC, NBC, and CBS during every presidential election from 1988 to 2000" (p. 4). Such a comprehensive analysis of network news coverage is important for many reasons, not the least of which is the wide range of topics covered, which include the informational focus of news stories about the campaign; the tone of those stories; negativity, accuracy, and bias in the media's reporting; and how the major networks' coverage compares to that of leading newspapers, public broadcasting, and even late-night comedy programs.

The seemingly ubiquitous nature of the use of public opinion polls by the media during a campaign season is noticeable by even the novice political observer. What Farnsworth and Lichter illustrate, however, is just how much network news programs rely on stories with polling data as their main focus. The "horse-race" aspect of the media's coverage of campaigns is something that many have noticed, but few have traced the increasing importance of the "politics-as-sport" aspect of news in such a thorough manner. For instance, not only have the number of news stories and total minutes of news broadcasts devoted to campaigns decreased since 1988, but in the ever-shrinking time slot devoted to campaigns, the number of stories...

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