Analyzing Coverage of Politicians; Study Lends Credence to Complaints about Negative Reporting on the GOP

Article excerpt

REPUBLICAN COMPLAINTS about negative coverage by the press may be more than just political posturing.

A new report from the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) shows that "criticism outweighed praise for GOP policies by margins of 2-to-1 in editorials and 3-to-2 in news stories at eight major media outlets" during March.

"Reporters are convinced that Republicans have been paranoid about press coverage ever since [then-President] Dwight Eisenhower complained about the sensation-seeking commentators. I guess the message of our study this year is: Even paranoids can have enemies," CMPA co-director Robert Lichter commented during a panel discussion about the report.

Focusing on what Lichter called "the biggest story of the year," CMPA examined 748 news items -- 446 front-page news stories and 140 unsigned editorials -- about the new Republican Congress in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times and USA Today.

The center also analyzed television news coverage, looking at 162 news stories broadcast by ABC, CBS and NBC during their network evening newscasts.

Television news was more critical of the Republicans than were newspapers, with 71% of its reports consisting of negative evaluations. The newspaper evaluations overall were 61% negative.

One of the study's "key findings is that if you read the editorials in a newspaper, you don't need to read the news. They both look pretty much the same. The news and editorials seem to speak with the same voice these days," Lichter said.

"In other words, journalism speaks in its own voice on the editorial page and quotes other people to the same effect on the news pages," he said.

"I think that's a very disturbing phenomenon, in the context of the tradition of the American press of seeking balance and objectivity on the news pages and separating them from the editorial," Lichter added.

For example, CMPA found that at the Washington Post, evaluations of the Republican Congress -- by both sources and reporters -- were 66% negative in news stories and 67% negative in editorials.

In USA Today news stories, 70% of evaluations of the Republican Congress were negative, compared to 76% in its editorials.

Front-page news stories in the New York Times, however, were 65% negative, while the editorials were 87% negative.

The more conservative Wall Street Journal and Washington Times, however, were found by CMPA to be more balanced. At both papers, 47% of the evaluations in their news pages were positive.

In the editorial pages of the Journal, 48% of comments were positive, and at the Times, 41% of editorials were positive.

"The Wall Street Journal editorial page is famously conservative, but what you get is criticism of Republicans for getting thrown off balance, for not going far enough, for not passing term limits, for not passing the balanced budget amendment," Lichter explained.

"So the criticism is in a different direction, but there's still enough criticism to bring down the positive image of the Republicans. Something similar happens in the overtly conservative Washington Times," he said.

If the Congress took its lumps in the press, two of its most visible members, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) bore the brunt of the criticism

Gingrich was the most visible Republican on television with 21 stories, and Dole received the most coverage in the newspapers, appearing in 52 front-page stories during March.

Sixty-nine percent of all the evaluations of Gingrich were negative, 64% for Dole. The New York Times had the highest percentage of negative comments about both men (89% negative for Dole, 91% negative for Gingrich), while the Washington Times was the most positive (56% positive for Dole, 41% positive for Gingrich).

But while Dole and Gingrich were the most visible targets, they did not receive the most negative coverage. …