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Election 2008: Winning the Media: Sarah Palin's wardrobe, Media Bias, Economic crisis coverage

Mark Jurkowitz
Associate Director at the Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism
Thursday, October 23, 2008 12:00 PM

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director at the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism was online Thursday, Oct. 23 at noon ET to examine the coverage of the 2008 elections and explain the Pew Centers recent report Winning the Media Campaign released on Wednesday.

A transcript follows.

Jurkowitz has spent nearly two decades covering the news media. He has been a press critic and wrote the Boston Phoenix's "Don't Quote Me" column. He spent 10 years at The Boston Globe. He has been a commentator on media-related issues on CNN's "Reliable Sources" and NPR's "On the Media," and has made more than 300 appearances as a regular panelist on "Beat the Press," a weekly program on Boston's WGBH-TV which analyzes the journalism profession.

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Mark Jurkowitz: Good afternoon, glad to be here. I'll take your questions now about coverage of the presidential campaign.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. I thought this was the key finding. "For McCain, coverage began positively, but turned sharply negative with McCain's reaction to the crisis in the financial markets. As he took increasingly bolder steps to try and reverse the direction of the polls, the coverage only worsened. Attempts to turn the dialogue away from the economy through attacks on Obama's character did hurt Obama's media coverage, but McCain's was even more negative."

In other words, coverage of McCain was negative, but not unfair. The Washington Nationals get more negative coverage than the Redskins, but that's because the Nationals stink and the Redskins are good. In short, I thought the whole study was tautological. Why did you even do it? You proved the obvious.

Mark Jurkowitz: First of all, our goal here is to empirically analyze the coverage of the campaign and to break it down and see what the components are. McCain did receive a lot of negative coverage, and as we state, much of it stemmed from his own actions in reaction to the financial meltdown as well as his falling position in the polls. Negative coverage is not the same thing as unfair coverage.

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Claverack, N.Y.: In an environment where Internet access provides thousands of choices of political discussion, does "media fairness" mean the same thing it meant ten years ago?

Mark Jurkowitz: Great question. Not only do you have an infinite number of choices when it comes to the Internet, but much of the conversation on cable news is now highly polarized, almost advocacy journalism. It may be that more people are now seeking out news sources that validate their views. Having said that, fairness and objectivity, are still important standards for much of the mainstream press and many news consumers still rely on them for that.

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Towson, Md.: Have any members of the press explored whether the Obama campaign paid for Mrs. Obama's wardrobe? What about Sen. Clinton? If they paid for their own wardrobe, good for them. But I detect zero curiosity or interest in balance from the press.

Mark Jurkowitz: I did see something today, I'm not sure where, about Obama wearing his own clothes in this campaign, so someone is looking into it. But that is a fair question to ask in light of the news about Sarah Palin in recent days.

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New Orleans, La.: I agree with many that media coverage of Sarah Palin, which has been more intense than it has of the other three candidates. I believe it's appropriate, because she won't talk to the press in any meaningful way and answer the questions so many have about her. The press still needs to find the answers somehow.

In addition, she is involved with so many questionable and controversial affairs like Troopergate, her seeming ignorance of a VP's constitutional responsibilities (and many other matters), her using taxpayer money to fund family trips and so on. (I personally think the latest of the RNC spending $150K on clothes isn't that interesting.) But basically, if her nose were clean, she wouldn't invite scrutiny and could focus on building her positives, whatever they might be.

Mark Jurkowitz: Well, Sarah Palin has been generated a lot more coverage than Joe Biden, but not as much as either John McCain or Barack Obama. In a way, the decision of the McCain camp to initially keep her at a distance from the press may have stoked more public interest in her interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric. Clearly, a significant amount of the coverage about her has focused on her record as Governor of Alaska and Mayor of Wasilla and the majority of that coverage has been negative.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Phil Berg, a Pennsylvania attorney who ran uphill campaigns for Governor, Lt. Governor, and U.S. Senator, is seeking another fifteen minutes of fame by filing a lawsuit claiming Obama is not an American citizen. I notice some local newspapers are beginning to pick up his story and he claims his website on this has received 50 million hits. I thought this matter was settled a long time ago by fact checkers and rumor control experts. Yet, what might another round of coverage of these old rumors do to this campaign?

Mark Jurkowitz: It's unclear what another round of coverage of those rumors or others might do to affect the race at this point. I have not seen a great deal of mainstream media coverage of this. One thing that appears to be happening as we head toward the homestretch is that the news cycle is speeding up. It is now hard for any one story that isn't a 10 on the Richter scale to have a shelf life of more than 24 hours.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: The problem with our Presidential selection process is no one is qualified to be President, but someone has to be elected to do the job. No one has the complete knowledge, fortitude, foresight, skill, and luck to serve as President. If Jesus were to return and run for President, he would immediately be denounced for uncertain parentage, lack of administrative experience and failure to have traveled to all continents. Could anyone come close to making most of the media happy?

Mark Jurkowitz: Your question --what does the media want?--is a difficult one to answer. One thing we see in the coverage is that the press is often looking for events in a campaign that might have the potential to be a strategic "game changer," to use an overworked phrase--whether it be Bill Ayers, a debate, or even the economic crisis. The media often seem to want a fluid or changeable campaign dynamic.

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"Proving the obvious": Sometimes you've got to prove the obvious. Especially when the RNC and McCain campaign are vociferously crying "foul" over what they perceive to be unfair coverage -- or of the media being "in the tank" for Obama. I'm happy to see this report from Pew, though I'm doubtful it will change many minds on the McCain side. They'll just start to lump Pew with the dreaded New York Times and the rest of the biased Liberal media, don't you think, Marc?

Mark Jurkowitz: Well, I'm not sure how the candidate or candidates will take this report. We tried to address the issue of media bias in our report, because we knew many people would focus on that. Our conclusion is that our data doesn't give us a clear conclusion. What we do see is a dynamic in which "nothing succeeds like success," meaning a campaign doing well strategically and in the polls gets the better coverage. Candidates and politicians have been yelling about media bias from time immemorial. In fact, on our web site, we have a rundown of condemnations of media unfairness that stretch back to Thomas Jefferson.

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Wilmington, N.C.: To follow up Raleigh's very good question, why do you do this? What is the value in quantifying the tone of coverage without regard to its relationship to underlying events?

Mark Jurkowitz: I would ask you to read our report, which is 25 pages long, carefully. We go to excruciating detail to link the coverage with events and the underlying dynamic. We realize that is important not simply to talk about tone of coverage, but to explain why we see that tone. I think we do a pretty good job of that.

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Washington, D.C.: I think the term "media bias" is not the best as to me it implies unethical. I would not view Keith Doberman or Bill O'Reilly as unethical. I would use the term "media agenda" as I think both have an agenda that they push.

I would contend that this "media agenda" was polarized 10-20 years ago by the formation of conservative outlets as a reaction to a the left leaning agenda of the TV, newspapers and NPR.

Am I just another conservative crackpot?

Mark Jurkowitz: Bias is often in the eye of the beholder, but there are surveys that indicate that a growing segment of the public thinks the media aren't being fair. In conservative circles, the idea of liberal bias in the mainstream media has really been around for several decades--and it does help explain the success of people like Rush Limbaugh. In recent years, perhaps in response to conservative talk radio and the Fox News Channel, liberals are complaining more about conservative bias.

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Purple North Carolina: I hear a lot about "negative" ads on both sides, I don't hear much differentiation between negative-character-based ads and negative-issue-based ads. To my mind, these are two very different things, and they get conflated way too often. My anecdotal impression from watching TV is that the McCain campaign is more in the former camp and that the Obama campaign is more in the latter camp. But like I said, that's just one person's observation... Is there any data on the actual breakdown?

Mark Jurkowitz: I'm sure there is data somewhere about the tone and content of the ads, but unfortunately we don't have it. Now there has been an effort in many quarters of the press this election to do some "fact checking" and vetting of claims made both in ads and in speeches and debates. And that's a good thing. Sometimes in the media, in the so-called interest of fairness, there is a tendency to give equal time to both sides of a dispute rather than to ferret out who might be telling the truth or whose ads might be nastier. That isn't necessarily a good thing.

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Washington, D.C.: So, now the tough yes or no (only!) question. Is the media bias in favor of Obama?

Mark Jurkowitz: I can tell you exactly what we said in our report, and it might not be the answer you're looking for.

"The data do not provide conclusive answers. They do offer a strong suggestion that winning in politics begat winning coverage."

I would add this note. At the beginning of the period in our study, from Sept. 8-14, McCain was enjoying a post convention bounce, the Palin pick was galvanizing his base, and he had pulled into a lead in the polls. That week, he got positive coverage and Obama got negative coverage.

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New York, N.Y.: Every day there are handfuls of examples of media bias outlined by scores of websites. Did you look at those accusations? And, did you investigate the bias of the media not investigating something about a candidate, or investigating too much of another?

Mark Jurkowitz: I would make one point about the allegations of media bias that come from web sites and the blogosphere and even some organizations that have been created to scrutinize the media. Many of those sources have more of an ideological bias than the news media they are pointing at, and that's worth keeping in mind.

Having said that, it's not just what a news organizations covers, but what it doesn't cover as well, that says something about its priorities and agenda.

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Laurel, Md.: Robert J. Samuelson wrote a good op-ed two days ago about the various proposals to deal with the current financial situations amount to generational favoritism (i.e. it isn't a problem for young people if stocks and homes fall in price).

Is the press being fair to all sides when it coverage falling stock and home prices as "bad news"?

washingtonpost.com: Young Voters, Get Mad (Post Oct. 22)

Mark Jurkowitz: Even before we did this campaign study, we issued a report on coverage of the economic crisis over the past year, and this kind of complex and nuanced reporting can prove difficult for much of the media. For my money, I would still like to see more coverage of the impact of what is happening in the economy on the American consumer--although it's hard to see too much good news in what has been happening lately.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Jurkowitz, does your study just cover the period from Sept 8 through Oct 18? Or is there information available for the many many months preceding September? I'm not sure that looking at media coverage for one six-week period will give a balanced picture of overall media coverage for Messrs. Obama and McCain.

Mark Jurkowitz: This is actually the third study we have done of campaign coverage that has, in some way, looked at the tone of that coverage. The first one looked at the early campaign back in 2007. The second one looked at coverage in the early primary season --from Jan. 1-March 9 2008. And now this one. They are all available on our site, and when you piece the three of them together, you can get a pretty good sense of the overall coverage.

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Re: Liberal Bias: I think SNL summed up 'Elite Liberal Media' bias (and 'Normal Liberal Media' bias) pretty well, with the line about fact-checking, truth-based answers, and follow-up questions. Not to say that conservatives are liars but as Bush has shown, there are a great many people who view fact and truth as liberally-biased, and that they prefer faith and instinct instead.

Mark Jurkowitz: If you expand the definition of media to include the entertainment world, I think SNL might be having the best campaign season of any media outlet. It has certainly put them back on the map.

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New York, N.Y.: I'm trying to figure how you define positive and negative coverage. For example, a newscaster says, "Candidate X leads Candidate Y by 10% in our latest poll." Does that count as positive coverage for Candidate X and negative coverage for Candidate Y?

Mark Jurkowitz: If it is a story that is strictly and factually reciting polls that might favor one candidate, then it does not count as positive or negative. The story would have to be in a broader context about the campaigns to be categorized as such.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: I read things from both the left and the right about the "MSM" and its biases (against their parties). It seems to me that many people feel that "mainstream" (or "corporate") media are "anyone who doesn't agree with my "worldview" and "independent" media are "outlets that share my worldview." Since the MSM seems to be a good job offending people on both sides, maybe they're more objective than both sides would like to admit?

What I do see in the MSM is not so much bias for one party or another, but a bias for a compelling storyline (or a change in storyline, if the current story has been static for too long), which is less sinister, but sometimes just as harmful.

Mark Jurkowitz: Your point about the bias for a compelling storyline is well taken. And if you really look at the trajectory of coverage in this campaign, there has been less of a coherent, connected media narrative and more of a kind of episodic focus on events, controversies and gaffes. That stretches all the way back to the Democratic primary when you had a campaign narrative that was bouncing from Rev. Wright to Hillary Clinton's mis-remembering her trip to Bosnia and so on. Even in the general election campaign, we've seen storyline such as the "lipstick on a pig" quote consume an awful lot of the media attention before they move on.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm in my 50s, so I've been through several presidential campaigns. I have to say that, before this one, I never had such a strong sense that the mainstream media is so deeply in the tank for the Democratic candidate and is working hard to get him elected. It's so transparent to me, especially when I read the transcripts of reporters' on-line chats, where their political leanings, and how those affect their writing, is most clear. Wouldn't it simply be more honest for newspapers and TV station to reveal how their reporters are registered and voted, so that their readers and listeners can know where the bias lies? I think that this kind of disclosure is no more intrusive than the financial disclosure required of politicians, and frankly, it is just as important. It's so frustrating for me to hear all these reporters claim that their coverage is balanced, and then read them mocking Palin's intelligence on line.

Mark Jurkowitz: Believe it or not, there are published surveys that do examine how journalists define themselves ideologically and whether they are Democrats and Republicans. And there are some journalists, like former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie, who wouldn't vote for that reason. But the question that has to be asked is whether a journalist's personal ideology is reflected in his or her work.

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Boston, Mass.: Why does the TV media do such a terrible job reporting on polls? They act like obvious outliers are breaking news. The AP poll with Obama +1 nationally is being reported on like the campaign is tightening. Maybe it is, but the internals of that AP poll are ridiculous -- like 44% of the likely voter electorate being born again when it was 24% in 2004. How do TV people justify analyzing the poll for what it means for the campaign for 10 minutes without first analyzing the poll for probable accuracy?

Mark Jurkowitz: With every campaign cycle, the focus on polls seems to get more and more intense, and becomes a bigger part of the overall framework of coverage. Often, poll numbers are talked about without any real explanation of the methodology. It is part of the horserace frame of coverage and of course, given that the media are vigilant for anything that might reflect a change in the race, a poll that shows a virtual tie between Obama and McCain is likely to get some attention.

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Washington, DC: Following up on your response: "This is actually the third study we have done of campaign coverage that has, in some way, looked at the tone of that coverage... when you piece the three of them together, you can get a pretty good sense of the overall coverage."

Can you please tell us, based on your three studies, whether McCain & Obama have both received -- on balance -- about the same amount of negative and positive media coverage?

Thank you, this is very interesting stuff.

Mark Jurkowitz: Sure. And it's worth noting that the methodology has been different. But in the early study, Obama did much better than McCain largely because McCain's coverage was being influenced by the fact that his campaign looked like it was on life support back in 2007. (We tend to forget that.) In the middle survey, McCain got positive coverage on a number of his character qualities, but his overall tone was dragged down by the perception, in the middle of the primary season, that he was not a reliable conservative. In that study as well, even though Hillary Clinton was complaining about the media being biased toward Obama, her coverage was just as positive as his.

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Birmingham Ala.: The question of negative stories increasing as the poll numbers slip presents an interesting chicken and egg dilemma don't you think? Do the stories get more negative as the campaign struggles, or does McCain's campaign slip because it is being covered more negatively? How do we separate cause and effect here, or can we?

Mark Jurkowitz: There is a bit of a chicken and the egg situation here, but our findings would appear to suggest that coverage of campaign events tends to be stenographic until there is some evidence of how those events are playing--ie.the polls. Then the perceptions harden.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: In the last two election cycles it was said by the Democrats that Bush was getting all of the positive coverage. Did PEW or anyone look into that election coverage?

washingtonpost.com: Character and the Campaign ( Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, July 2004)

Mark Jurkowitz: We have done studies late in the 2000 election cycles that covered shorter periods of time than in this study. We actually found that during the debate period in 2004, when John Kerry was perceived to be doing well, his coverage was quite similar to Obama's in 2008 and he was doing quite well. So, again, charges of media bias tend to often be based on a selective look at the coverage.

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Richmond, Va.: To whom does the press owe "fairness", is it to the candidates, or to the public? In that light what constitutes "fairness"? The very idea of "fairness" is so subjective, as to almost be laughable, particularly in reporting on politics. I would have to say that journalistic "integrity" should be more of a goal or standard than "fairness". Journalism should be about the reporting of facts, and leave the commenting to the editorial pages, but it seems to me that far to much of what is presented as news, is really infotainment or editorial in nature.

Mark Jurkowitz: Well, you've really asked an important question. Many people will say that journalistic objectivity is impossible. Every decision a reporter makes, about which quote to use, etc.-- is a subjective one. And so fairness should be the prevailing principle. But at its core, journalism is about finding out the truth, whenever that is humanly possible. So that is the profession's most important mandate. Quoting one person saying the sun rises in the east and then finding another to say it rises in the west may reflect some form of balance. But it isn't true and it isn't good journalism. That's a problem with certain parts of the media culture today, probably most acute on cable news .

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Seattle, Wash.: What impact in the quantity and quality of coverage did the McCain campaigns attempts to 'win' the daily news cycle have?

Mark Jurkowitz: This will be my last answer, as I have to run. But there is evidence in our study that as McCain began to become more of an proactive actor in the campaign, making moves, some of them dramatic, such as suspending his campaign and asking for a delay in the debate, his coverage got more negative. One of the ironies here is that for a while, the complaint was that Obama was getting so much more coverage than McCain. In the period we studied, McCain actually generated as much coverage as Obama, but much of it was negative. So it kind of reinforces the axiom that sometimes more news is not good news.

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Mark Jurkowitz: Thanks everyone for participating. Both media coverage and public interest in this campaign have been at very high levels--and it looks like neither are subsiding.

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