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Where's the Beef?

Latest data show that election coverage on television is as usual biased and thin on substance.
 
 
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And they're off. With buses, cameras, computers, pundits and correspondents at the ready, the Big Three news networks have taken to the campaign trail with a commitment and fervor that is unparalleled. But "the beef" in their reporting -- in the form of coverage of the candidates' positions on issues that matter most to Americans -- has gone missing from nightly newscasts.

Data compiled for MediaChannel.org by international media monitoring firm Media Tenor showed that in January the three networks devoted less than 5 percent of their coverage of the Democratic campaigns to reporting the candidates' positions on the five election issues that Americans say matter the most.

In a Jan. 4 CBS/New York Times poll of 877 registered voters, Americans chose the economy as the issue they "would most like to hear the candidates for president discuss during the 2004 presidential campaign." This was followed by the war against terror, health care, education and taxation.

You wouldn't know it from watching the nightly news at CBS, NBC and ABC, who gave scant airtime to these issues in their January coverage of the Democratic presidential candidates and Republican incumbent George W. Bush. According to MediaChannel/Media Tenor analysis, only 2.8 percent of network campaign coverage dealt with candidates' positions on the economy. The networks devoted less than 6 percent of their January election coverage to the candidates' positions on the war on terror; less than 1 percent to positions on health care; and a dismal 1.1 percent of network coverage was devoted to candidates' positions on taxation.

These numbers are more than halved when coverage of candidate Bush is removed from the analysis. Network news coverage of the president's policy positions on the five key political issues accounts for 56.8 percent of all issues-related election coverage. Looking at news coverage of the Democratic candidates alone, news statements related to their positions on the five most important issues fall below 5 percent.

And the trend is towards less and less coverage according to Media Tenor. "For the past four weeks, all three networks have decreased their share of policy coverage on the candidates," Media Tenor president Roland Schatz reported. "Television is depriving the voters of information about the position of the candidates on certain issues."

Follow the Winners, Typecast the Losers ...

Additional MediaChannel/Media Tenor analysis is beginning to clear the static surrounding broadcast news. But the image that emerges -- of bias for and against candidates and a reluctance to cover the issues that matter to Americans most -- is not necessarily one the network heads would like Americans to know about.

The numbers tell the tale.

According to January data compiled by MediaChannel and Media Tenor, the networks have already picked their favorites and typecast their losers. And there were few surprises to be had.

The news winners in the final week of the month were Senators John Kerry and John Edwards. Of the 290 network statements made in January about Kerry, 35.5 percent were positive; against only 9 percent of statements made during the nightly, half-hour broadcasts that cast the candidate in a negative light.

For Edwards, 31.4 percent of statements were positive; against only 2.5 percent negative. Media Tenor analysts counted the remainder of statements as neutral towards the candidates.

There were few surprises in January, says Media Tenor President Roland Schatz. "Given the momentum Kerry and Edwards carried out of the Jan. 19 Iowa caucus -- where they finished one and two -- we would expect this sort of positive change."

Also of little surprise is the network turn against Governor Howard Dean. In the first two weeks of January, Dean commanded a relative high positive in network news coverage of his campaign with more than 26 percent of all news statements considered positive; less than 16 percent was considered negative. By the final week, Dean's news image had changed. Negative press statements had risen one percentage point, while his positive coverage fell ten points from more than 26 percent at the beginning of the month, to 16 percent in the final week.

... And Ignore the Rest

Faring worst of all in the contest for television attention are the two candidates the networks chose to exclude almost entirely from nightly broadcasts -- Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton. According to MediaChannel/Media Tenor analysis, Al Sharpton garnered less than 0.4 percent of the networks' attention in the first month of 2004. Kucinich faired little better, capturing only 0.94 percent.

At the other end of the spectrum, Howard Dean and President George W. Bush enjoyed most of the attention from ABC World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News. Dean received more total coverage than the president, defying usual patterns of broadcast news, which tend to favor the incumbent over challengers.

Dean received 29.2 percent of all network news candidate coverage, although a large portion of this was devoted to his already infamous and -- as is now becoming known -- mischaracterized "scream."

It's worth noting that coverage of Dean varied from network to network. NBC appears to favor the former Vermont governor more than their rivals at CBS. More than 14 percent of NBC coverage of Howard Dean in the final week of January was positive, while the network only mentioned the candidate in a negative light 4.1 percent of the time. Conversely, 27 percent of CBS' Dean coverage was negative at the close of January. Media Tenor counted only 9.5 percent of CBS Evening News reports as favorable to Dean.

President Bush received less coverage than the former Democratic frontrunner: only 22.9 percent of network candidate coverage focused its lens on the president.

You can download the Media Tenor report at the MediaChannel website.

Timothy Karr is the Executive Director at MediaChannel.org.