June 5, 2008

Many Say Coverage is Biased in Favor of Obama

But Obama Controversies Registered Widely

Summary of Findings

Over the course of the primary campaign season greater numbers heard about controversies associated with Barack Obama than heard about other campaign events. Nonetheless, far more Americans believe that the press coverage has favored Barack Obama than think it has favored Hillary Clinton.

Nearly four-in-ten (37%) say that in covering the Democratic race, news organizations have been biased toward Obama while just 8% say they have been biased toward Clinton; 40% say news organizations have shown no bias in their coverage. Substantial minorities of Republicans (45%) and independents (40%) say the press has been biased toward Obama; somewhat fewer Democrats (35%) see a pro-Obama bias.

The weekly News Interest Index finds that Obama has clearly been the dominant figure in the campaign thus far, both in terms of press coverage and public visibility. Despite the widespread belief that the press has favored Obama, many of the events that have registered most strongly with the public centered on controversies involving either Obama himself or his campaign.

Of nearly 40 campaign events that have been measured, Obama’s relationship with his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright remains the most widely heard about campaign story. In early May, 62% of the public said they had heard a lot about Wright’s speeches dealing with race and the presidential campaign.

Aside from the Wright controversy, more than half of the public (52%) heard a lot about Obama’s statement that some small-town Americans facing hard economic times become bitter and cling to guns and religion. An additional 51% said they had heard a lot about the videos of Rev. Wright’s sermons in late March.

There also was extensive public awareness of more favorable developments involving Obama. A solid majority (55%) said they heard that Obama in late May had amassed a majority of all pledged delegates from the Democratic primaries. And 54% heard a lot about Obama’s major speech on race and politics in March.

For Clinton, about half (52%) said they heard a lot about the debate in mid-May over whether she should end her campaign or stay in the race until the last primary. Four-in-ten Americans heard a lot about Geraldine Ferraro’s comments that Obama would not be where he was today if he was a white man. Ferraro was loosely associated with the Clinton campaign at the time. Roughly the same number (39%) heard a lot about Clinton’s claims that she had dodged sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia while Bill Clinton was president.

As for McCain, in February of this year, 48% of the public had heard a lot about reports – first published in the New York Times – suggesting that he may have had an improper relationship with a female lobbyist years ago.

The extensive public visibility of Obama’s association with Wright is reflected in the fact that 77% named Obama as the candidate who disavowed his former pastor because of his controversial statements. By comparison, a smaller majority (57%) correctly identified Clinton as the candidate who claimed to have come under sniper fire while visiting Bosnia. And 42% named McCain as the candidate who has faced allegations of an improper relationship with a female lobbyist.

Public and Press Focused on Obama

Since February’s Super Tuesday primaries, Obama has consistently been the most visible presidential candidate in the eyes of the public. In 12 of 13 consecutive weeks, Obama has been the presidential candidate Americans have been hearing the most about in the news. Last week 54% named as Obama as the candidate they had heard to most about in the last week; 27% named Clinton and 5% named McCain.

News coverage of the candidates has fluctuated according to campaign events. Nonetheless, Obama has generally dominated the news cycle as well. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) Campaign Coverage Index, Obama has received more press coverage than either Clinton or McCain in 11 of the past 17 weeks. Clinton has dominated the campaign coverage in 4 of the last 17 weeks. McCain has not led the two Democratic candidates in terms of news coverage since the week of Feb. 4-10, when he became the presumptive Republican nominee following his victories in the GOP Super Tuesday primaries.

These findings are based on the most recent installment of the weekly News Interest Index, an ongoing project of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The index, building on the Center’s longstanding research into public attentiveness to major news stories, examines news interest as it relates to the news media’s agenda. The weekly survey is conducted in conjunction with The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, which monitors the news reported by major newspaper, television, radio and online news outlets on an ongoing basis. In the most recent week, data relating to news coverage was collected from May 26 – June 1 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected May 30 – June 2 from a nationally representative sample of 1,002 adults.

Rating Campaign News Coverage

As has been the case in three previous presidential campaigns, public views of how well the press has covered the presidential campaign have declined over the course of the primary season.

In February, a majority (55%) rated coverage of the campaign as either excellent or good, while 44% saw the coverage as only fair or poor. Currently, most Americans (54%) say the coverage has been only fair or poor, compared with 43% who rate it as excellent or good.

Opinions about press coverage of the campaign also declined during the course of the 2004, 2000 and 1996 campaigns. In 1992, however, ratings of press coverage of the campaign remained fairly stable, and positive, between February and May of that year (56% positive in February, 54% positive in May).

Views of Specific Aspects of Coverage

The public is highly critical of how the press has done their job in several respects. About six-in-ten Americans say the press has done only a fair or poor job in covering the candidates’ positions on issues (59%), campaign strategies (57%), the candidates’ personal backgrounds or experiences (57%), and in explaining how the nominees are chosen (57%).

About half (48%) say the press has done an excellent or good job in covering the candidates’ debates; roughly the same percentage (45%) say its performance has been only fair or poor.

The one area where the public believes the press has done well is in covering which candidate is leading in the horserace. Six-in-ten (59%) Americans say that the press has done an excellent or good job reporting on which candidate is leading in the latest polls, while roughly a third (35%) say the coverage is only fair or poor.
Partisans provide roughly equal ratings of the press on their coverage of the candidates’ backgrounds, the campaign strategies and reporting on how the nominees are chosen. However, Republicans are somewhat more critical than Democrats of how the press has covered the discussion of issues in the presidential campaign. Two-thirds (66%) of Republicans rate the coverage of issues as ‘only fair’ or ‘poor’ compared with a small majority of Democrats (54%).

The Press, the Public and the Primary Process

The public is not only critical of the way the press has covered the primary process, but also the influence it exerts on that process. Two-thirds of the public (66%) says the press has too much influence on which candidates become the presidential nominees, compared with 28% who say the press has the right amount of influence and 4% who believe it has too little influence.

The percentage saying the press is too influential in the primary process has increased significantly since February of this year. At that time, 54% said the press had too much influence and 39% said the amount of influence was about right. Public criticism of the press’s influence over the nomination process is not a new phenomenon. In February 2004, 63% said the press had too much influence on which candidates became the nominees.

Currently, Republicans are more critical of the press in this regard than either Democrats or independents. Three-quarters of Republicans (76%) compared with 60% of Democrats and 68% of independents say the press has too much influence over nomination process.

In addition to criticizing the press for its role in the primary process, the public is critical of the process itself. Most Americans (60%) say the primaries have not been a good way of determining the best qualified nominees; just 35% express a positive view of the primaries. In early February, 43% said the primaries were a good way of determining who the nominees should be, 52% said they were not.

Republicans and independents are the most critical of the process. Fully 65% of Republicans and 67% of independents say the primaries are not a good way of choosing the party nominees. More than half of Democrats (52%) agree with this assessment. The balance of opinion among Democrats on this issue has changed since February when a 53% majority said the primaries were a good way of determining the best qualified nominees.

Strong Public Interest in the Campaign

Overall, public interest in the presidential election has remained steady in recent weeks, with roughly a third of the public following news about the campaign very closely. Interest peaked in mid- to late-February when more than four-in-ten Americans were paying very close attention to the campaign. The intense public interest in the campaign during the primary season this year was unprecedented from a historical perspective. In past presidential elections, public interest has not reached that level until the weeks leading up to the general election.

Throughout the campaign, Democrats have consistently expressed more interest in news about the campaign than have either Republicans or independents. The gap has grown in recent weeks, as the Democratic race moved to a conclusion. Last week 38% of Democrats followed news about the campaign very closely, compared with 25% of Republicans and 24% of independents.

Campaign News Sources

The main news sources that the public relies on for campaign news have changed little since last December, but there have been notable shifts since the 2004 campaign. Television remains the public’s leading source for campaign news, though it is less dominant than during the last presidential campaign. The Internet is a much more important news source than it was in 2004.

Seven-in-ten Americans say they get most of their news about the election from television, which is about the same as in December (71%) but down 10 points since September 2004. About three-in-ten cite newspapers (29%), which is largely unchanged from December and a decline of 12 points since September 2004. As many people now cite the internet as cite newspapers as their main source of campaign news (29%); just 17% cited the internet in September 2004.

The internet has made substantial gains as a main source of campaign news across age groups, with the exception of those ages 65 and older. Among those ages 50-64, 23% cite the internet as their main source of election news, approximately double the proportion that cited the internet in 2004 (11%). Increasing percentages of those under age 35 and those ages 35-49 also say they get most of their campaign news from the internet (up 14 points in each group).

Among TV news outlets, the major cable networks are the dominant source for campaign news. Nearly half of the public rely on CNN (22%), the Fox News Channel (16%), or MSNBC (9%) for most of their campaign news. Fewer than three-in-ten (28%) rely on one of the three major broadcast networks and ever fewer (16%) rely on local TV news.

Roughly equal proportions of Republicans and Democrats say they rely on Network TV, local TV or MSNBC Cable News for campaign coverage. For Fox and CNN, however, there are significant partisan differences. Far more Republicans (24%) than Democrats (10%) get most of their campaign news from Fox, while the opposite is true for CNN: 24% of Democrats look to CNN compared with just 13% of Republicans.

News Interest: May 26-June 1

Aside from the 2008 presidential campaign, the public focused its attention on disaster news – both at home and abroad – while the media devoted most of its coverage elsewhere. One-in-five named the earthquake in China as the story they followed more closely than any other last week, on par with the interest levels when the earthquake struck in mid-May. The national news media devoted 3% of its coverage to the story.

News about violent storms and tornadoes in the Midwest also captured the public’s attention last week with 18% of Americans calling the storms their top story. Unsurprisingly, those in the middle of the country (41%) were much more likely than those living elsewhere to have followed the story very closely. Just 2% of the national newshole was devoted to the storms.

About the News Interest Index

The News Interest Index is a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events.

This project has been undertaken in conjunction with the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, an ongoing content analysis of the news. The News Coverage Index catalogues the news from top news organizations across five major sectors of the media: newspapers, network television, cable television, radio and the internet. Each week (from Sunday through Friday) PEJ will compile this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey will collect data from Friday through Monday to gauge public interest in the most covered stories of the week.

Results for the weekly surveys are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of approximately 1,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.

For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to www.journalism.org.