Paint by Numbers
How Repeated Reportage Colors Perceptions
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2004; Page C01
The good news for President Bush is that he has dominated media coverage in recent months, a new study says.
The bad news is that much of the reporting has focused on the president's character -- and has been negative by more than a 3-to-1 margin.
The bad news for John Kerry is that the media assessments of his character have been negative by a margin of more than 5 to 1. The good news is he's been so overshadowed that there haven't been that many stories about him.
In an era when both Republicans and Democrats increasingly view the media with distrust, the findings could spark a renewed debate on biased coverage in the final months of a tight campaign. But there's no question, based on an accompanying poll, that the press is having an impact on the 2004 election. The more people read and watch, the study says, the more likely they are to echo the themes emphasized by journalists.
The report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Pew Research Center and University of Missouri journalism school looked at newspaper, broadcast and cable coverage from late March through early June. Researchers found that coverage often revolved around news events, such as the struggle in Iraq, and not campaign activities.
The most prevalent message about Bush, says the study, is that he is "stubborn and arrogant." Second most prevalent: Bush "lacks credibility." Third: The president is a "strong and decisive leader." Of all the comments about character, 56 percent were negative toward Bush, and 16 percent positive.
The most commonly reported theme about Kerry: he "flip-flops" on issues. Second: He's "very liberal." Third: "A tough guy who won't back down from a fight."
Of all the characterizations, 23 percent were negative toward Kerry, and 4 percent positive.
And where are these judgments coming from? In many cases, journalists themselves. The assessments of Bush's arrogance came from reporters more often than the Kerry campaign (46 to 28 percent), and at about the same rate on credibility, the study found.
For example, CBS's John Roberts reported in April: "At stake tonight, the president's credibility, chipped away at in recent weeks by the twin issues of Iraq and the 9/11 investigation."
"The fact that reporters feel pretty free to just infer things, or interpret from other people's statements, makes it easier for the campaigns to spin," says Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director. Campaign strategists "can say these things, even anonymously, and reporters will put it in their own words."
Negative characterizations of the Massachusetts senator were driven far more often by GOP attacks than journalists themselves, such as NBC's Tim Russert saying in April: "And the Republicans pounding away on the flip-flops of John Kerry, day after day."
Possible explanations, according to Rosenstiel: The Bush camp is more aggressive in going after Kerry, or journalists are biased in the Democrat's favor.
The negative reporting seems to have had a limited impact on Bush. According to the poll, 53 percent see him as tough and 48 percent as strong and decisive -- followed by 44 percent who say he's stubborn, 33 percent who say he twists the facts and 27 percent who call him a wealthy elitist.
The image of Kerry is less distinct but more negative: 36 percent say he flip-flops, 28 percent say he twists the facts and 20 percent call him a wealthy elitist -- followed by 18 percent who say Kerry is strong and decisive and 15 percent who call him tough.
A blizzard of ads has had relatively little impact on the public, despite the two campaigns' combined spending of $150 million, the project found. But the more ads viewers see, the more likely they are to say that Kerry flip-flops, a constant theme of the Bush ad blitz.
The researchers dutifully crunched the numbers on late-night political jokes. Jay Leno was the "least edgy," although the only one to zing Kerry as an elitist. David Letterman was "more pointed" and "probably harder on the president." Jon Stewart was the most likely to jab the administration as a whole, especially over Iraq, but his "digs at Kerry are less frequent."
John Edwards, a media favorite during the veepstakes, has drawn strikingly upbeat coverage in the week since he became John Kerry's running mate, fueled by those perfect photo ops with his wife and kids. Yesterday alone the dynamic duo had front-page interviews in the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, a joint appearance on "60 Minutes" and cover stories in Time ("The Contenders") and Newsweek ("The Sunshine Boys"). But the biggest windfall for Kerry has been the revised psychoanalysis of the man from Massachusetts.
The choice showed him to be "methodical, discreet, coolly pragmatic and exceedingly self-assured" (New York Times); "comfortable enough with his own national security experience to select a running mate with little background in foreign policy or defense" (Boston Globe); "secure enough to have picked a running mate widely judged to be the more effective campaigner" (Washington Post); "displayed a trait rare among politicians: true self-confidence" (The New Republic).
Talk about a bounce.
The New York Times reports, quoting an unnamed New York Post employee, that owner Rupert Murdoch himself phoned in the tip that led to that humiliating tabloid banner about John Kerry picking Dick Gephardt as his running mate. Murdoch on Friday denied being the source, according to Reuters.
Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader kicked off a self-examination this way:
"CLARIFICATION: It has come to the editor's attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission."
The paper published a long July 4 mea culpa, acknowledging that it deliberately played down the civil rights protests of the 1960s. When arrests forced a story onto Page 1, it was done in terse, police-report fashion. And events in the black community were usually relegated to a column called Colored News.
"It was a standing order that an effort at a dining room or restaurant or march would not get Page One coverage, that it would go inside," former editor Don Mills was quoted as saying. "The management's view was that the less publicity it got, the quicker the problem would go away."
Managing Editor Tom Eblen says the project was inspired by a speech by former editor John Carroll, who now runs the Los Angeles Times, and a reporter who found few clips while doing research for the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's school desegregation ruling.
Reader reaction has been "very positive," Eblen says, especially among African Americans. Readers appreciate "the fact that we acknowledged it wasn't covered very well and took an honest look at why that was."
From the Houston Chronicle: "An editorial in Wednesday's Chronicle carelessly referred to Sen. John Kerry in one reference as 'President Kerry.' The Chronicle regrets the error."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company