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Outside the Spotlight

A new study of network TV election coverage over the first half of 2004 shows the Democratic candidate losing out to the Bush campaign.
 
 
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NEW YORK – The Kerry campaign's share of network news coverage has been on a steady slide since the Massachusetts senator all but clinched his party nomination after the March 2 "Super Tuesday" primaries. According to a survey of media election coverage during the first half of 2004, President George W. Bush's share of the nightly newscasts has risen steadily through the year, while Senator John Kerry's image and words faded from network screens.

The study, released today by Media for Democracy and Media Tenor, is based on daily monitoring of network evening newscasts from January 1 through June 30, 2004.

During an average evening newscast in June, the networks were nearly four times as likely to mention President Bush as the Democratic presidential candidate. By contrast, in March of this year, network mention of Senator Kerry (40 percent of all coverage of Kerry, Bush and Ralph Nader) nearly rivaled coverage of incumbent Bush (59 percent).

ABC World News Tonight gave the least attention to Kerry and his campaign in June, devoting only 15.8 percent of its candidate coverage to the Massachusetts senator. In June, the half-hour newscast devoted 83.2 percent of its candidate coverage to Bush, according to the Media Tenor/Media for Democracy data. (To get the full Media Tenor / Media for Democracy study, email mfd@mediachannel.org)

Continuing analysis into July shows that Kerry enjoyed a jump in network coverage following his selection of Senator John Edwards as his running mate, but that this attention flattened to June levels during the last week surveyed – July 12 through 16.

Alarm Bells?

"John Kerry has had an increasingly hard time competing with the president for television news coverage," said Media Tenor President Roland Schatz. "Bush, as head of state, was expected to have a natural edge in coverage, but our study shows a precipitous decline in focus on Kerry, which should be ringing alarms at the Democratic contender's campaign headquarters."

Four years earlier, Democratic frontrunner Al Gore captured an even share (50.1 percent) of the network spotlight in June 2000, by comparison to then Texas Governor George Bush's portion (49.9 percent) of all coverage devoted to the candidates, according to the study.

"Voters are reluctant to vote a standing president out of office unless his opponent maintains high visibility," Says Schatz. "John Kerry has not been able to consistently attract network attention since the primaries."

The Media Tenor data support a New York Times/CBS June 27 poll in which 36 percent of Americans said that they were undecided or had not heard enough about Kerry to form an opinion about whether to support him in the November ballot.

The Democratic Party's plans to leverage next week's Democratic National Convention to showcase their candidate for undecided Americans suffered a setback earlier this month when ABC, CBS and NBC elected to cut back network coverage of the conventions to an average of three hours per network, per convention. In 1976, each of the three major commercial networks provided on average more than nine hours of live broadcasts from each convention.

But even factoring in the number of new cable stations devoting their primetime coverage to the conventions this year, overall television viewership has been in steady decline since the 1970s. That means that candidates have to make aggressive use of whatever coverage opportunities they can get, analysts say.

"For Kerry to cross the threshold and his image to become clearer to the public, he does need to get more coverage," Carroll Doherty, editor for the Pew Research Center, said. "The television lull between the primaries and the conventions is always tough for the challenger."

Good Coverage Is Often Bad News

Though many voters may not have a well-defined view of the Democratic candidate yet, Kerry is still running neck-in-neck with Bush in the many presidential preference polls that Pew Research Center monitors throughout the year. Doherty notes that while candidate Bush gets more attention from the networks' coverage, the coverage is not always positive.

Media Tenor's study shows network news stories about Bush had a more negative tone than stories about Kerry. Of the nearly 1,176 statements made about Bush during the networks' half-hour newscasts in the first six months of the year, Media Tenor classified 24.1 percent (or 284 statements) as negative. Stories that had a particularly negative cast included coverage tying Bush to terrorism advisor Richard Clarke's 9-11 Commission testimony, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and escalating violence in Iraq.

On average, this negative cast receded in June, largely due to positive coverage of Bush's appearances as head of state during the D-Day celebrations in France and the G-8 conference in the US.

The study categorizes only 13.1 percent of Kerry's January through June network coverage as negative.

Buying Ad Time to Take Up the Slack

Many voters now learn more about candidates from the tidal wave of political ads that have come to dominate primetime viewing in many swing-voter states this year. Kerry's camp has already spent more than $80 million on political ads to put their candidate before voters, a massive windfall for eager local broadcasters.

In western Michigan, on an average night in July television viewers are 13 times more likely to hear about candidates and their positions from political ads than from the 5:30, 6 and 11 O'clock local newscasts, according to a recent study by the Grand Rapids Institute of Information Democracy. A similar picture is emerging in other hotly contested election states where political ads do more to educate (or in many cases misinform) voters about federal candidates than the local news.

For the Kerry campaign, coverage by the national networks of the primaries and convention was the hoped-for antidote to the dearth of local political coverage.

With the networks planning to scale back on convention coverage, the campaigns are now turning to the three televised debates scheduled to begin in September to regain mainstream airtime denied their candidates in the first half of the year.

"The first debate is crucial for Kerry," Doherty said, but he remains skeptical that mainstream network coverage has the ability to influence voters as it had in the past.

"We're looking at a new media universe where mainstream political coverage is missing a lot of people, especially younger voters," Doherty said. "As a result, the broad public is much harder to reach for campaigns."

Timothy Karr is executive director of MediaChannel and Director of Media For Democracy, MediaChannel's 2004 citizens' initiative to monitor media coverage of the presidential elections.