Obama's Edge in the Coverage Race

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Democrat Barack Obama has had about a 3 to 1 advantage over Republican John McCain in Post Page 1 stories since Obama became his party's presumptive nominee June 4. Obama has generated a lot of news by being the first African American nominee, and he is less well known than McCain -- and therefore there's more to report on. But the disparity is so wide that it doesn't look good.

In overall political stories from June 4 to Friday, Obama dominated by 142 to 96. Obama has been featured in 35 stories on Page 1; McCain has been featured in 13, with three Page 1 references with photos to stories on inside pages. Fifteen stories featured both candidates and were about polls or issues such as terrorism, Social Security and the candidates' agreement on what should be done in Afghanistan.

This dovetails with Obama's dominance in photos, which I pointed out two weeks ago. At that time, it was 122 for Obama and 78 for McCain. Two weeks later, it's 143 to 100, almost the same gap, because editors have run almost the same number of photos -- 21 of Obama and 22 of McCain -- since they realized the disparity. McCain is almost even with Obama in Page 1 photos -- 10 to 9.

This is not just a Post phenomenon. The Project for Excellence in Journalism has been monitoring campaign coverage at an assortment of large and medium-circulation newspapers, broadcast evening and morning news shows, five news Web sites, three major cable news networks, and public radio and other radio outlets. Its latest report, for the week of Aug. 4-10, shows that for the eighth time in nine weeks, Obama received significantly more coverage than McCain.

Obama's dominance on Page 1 is partly due to stories about his winning the bruising primary battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton and his trip overseas in July. The coverage of June 4, 5, 6 and 7 led to six Page 1 stories in The Post, including Obama's nomination victory, his strategy, elation among African Americans over the historic nature of his win and his fundraising advantage. Then he made an appearance at Nissan Pavilion with Virginia's Gov. Timothy Kaine and Sen. James Webb, and it became a local Page 1 story. During those few days, there was one Page 1 reference to an inside-page story about McCain going after Clinton's disgruntled supporters.

When Obama traveled to the Middle East and Europe, the coverage dwarfed that of McCain -- six Page 1 stories from July 19 to July 27, plus an earlier front-page story announcing the trip. McCain managed one Page 1 story and one Page 1 reference; the July 25 story said he might pick a vice presidential candidate soon, but that didn't happen. While there was no front-page story about Obama on July 25, it seemed wrong not to count that day because a photo of him in Berlin dominated the front page. I also counted a story about a Post-ABC News poll concerning racism and its potential impact on the election; 3 in 10 of those polled acknowledged racial bias.

Not all Page 1 coverage has been favorable. Obama was hit right away with two Page 1 stories about Washington insider James A. Johnson, a former Fannie Mae CEO, who was criticized for mortgage deals and then withdrew from vetting Obama's potential running mates. A story about Obama's former Chicago church reminded readers of the controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. There were also stories with a favorable cast -- about his patriotism, his first appearance with Clinton and the coverage from his foreign trip.

McCain's Page 1 stories were a mix -- a story about the flap over former senator Phil Gramm's comment about a "nation of whiners" over the economy and a story about conservatives wanting to battle McCain on the party platform. But there also were stories about plans to make the federal government more environmentally responsible and McCain's proposal for offshore drilling.

The single most revealing story about McCain -- and one of the best Post stories on either candidate -- was a top-of-the-front-page look at McCain's intellect. The story, by veteran reporter and editor Robert G. Kaiser, was the kind of analysis that tells readers something they didn't know. It was neither positive nor negative, just revealing and insightful.

Another favorite was by Business reporter Lori Montgomery on how both candidates will have trouble lowering the deficit with their spending plans. A Style & Arts change of pace was movie critic Stephen Hunter's look at McCain and Obama as film icons-- McCain as John Wayne and Obama as Will Smith.

Page 1 coverage isn't all that counts, but it is the most visible. Certainly there were many stories on the Politics page and elsewhere in the paper. (I'm not counting opinion columns.) The Trail, The Post's politics blog, had dozens of short items about both candidates, all interesting to political junkies. Post inside coverage has been a mix of horse-race coverage -- stories about endorsements, advisers, who can win where -- and issues stories.

Style stories have dealt with the Internet, voters and volunteers, and the cultural aspects of the campaigns. Cindy McCain was featured in a big Style spread and Michelle Obama in a Metro story about her recent visit to Virginia.

Bill Hamilton, assistant managing editor for politics, thinks that I'm wrong to put weight on numbers. "We make our own decisions about what we consider newsworthy. We are not garment workers measuring our product every day to fulfill somebody's quota. That means as editors we decide what we think is important, because that's what our readers look for us to do -- not to adhere to some arbitrary standard.

"The nomination of the first African American presidential nominee after a bitter primary campaign and his efforts to unite a party afterward were simply more newsworthy than a candidate whose nomination was already assured and who spent much of that time raising money. In the end, we can and should be judged on the fairness of our coverage, but that is a judgment that must be made over the course of the whole campaign, not a single period of time."

Numbers aren't everything in political coverage, but readers deserve comparable coverage of the candidates.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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