Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Cable News, Public Opinion, and the 2004 Party Conventions

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Cable News, Public Opinion, and the 2004 Party Conventions

Article excerpt


In this study, the authors test for the presence of bias during Fox News and CNN's coverage of the 2004 national party conventions. The content analysis demonstrates that Fox News's coverage was more favorable to the Republican Party than it was to the Democratic Party, while CNN's coverage was more impartial. The authors also use panel data from the National Annenberg Election Survey to show how opinion change toward the 2004 presidential candidates was associated with exposure to cable television coverage of the national party conventions. These findings highlight the evolving role of the cable news media in presidential campaigns and elections.


cable news, media bias, public opinion, party conventions

Media bias in the news has been a controversial subject for decades. While claims of a liberal bias are most pervasive (see e.g., Bozell 2004; Groseclose and Milyo 2005; Lichter and Noyes 1995; Lowry and Shidler 1995; Maurer 1999), there have been competing accusations of conservative media bias as well (see e.g., Alterman 2004; Bagdikian 2004; Brock 2004; Kuklinski and Sigelman 1992; Scheuer 2001). National candidates, party leaders, and other political elites complain frequently that the media treat them unfairly. During the 2004 presidential campaign, for example, Republican officials pointed to Dan Rather's inaccurate story about President George W. Bush's National Guard service as confirmation of the media's liberal bias (see e.g., Podhoretz 2004). Liberals in turn issued their own objections. In one instance, Democratic lawmakers called on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Sinclair Broadcasting's decision to air an anti- Kerry documentary, "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal" (see e.g., McConnell and Higgins 2004).

Charges of media bias now extend to cable news, which has become an increasingly popular news source (Barkin 2003; Farnsworth and Lichter 2003; Salwen, Garrison, and Driscoll 2005). As of 2008, 39 percent of the public claimed that they watch CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, or CNBC on a regular basis compared to 29 percent who tune to one of the major broadcast networks (Pew Research Center 2008). The two top-rated cable news networks, Fox News and CNN, have been the frequent targets of bias claims. On one hand, liberals routinely note that the owner of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, holds politically conservative views and that Roger Ailes, a former Republican operative, is the president of Fox News (Jamieson and Cappella 2008; Kitty 2005). On the other hand, conservatives note that well-known liberal Ted Turner founded CNN. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay even dubbed CNN the "communist news network" for its perceived left-wing bias (see e.g., Alterman 2001).

However, it remains unclear whether these perceptions of media bias comport with reality, especially when some scholarship suggests that there is no convincing evidence of media bias in either direction (D'Alessio and Allen 2000; Hofstetter 1976; Niven 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003). Although there is extensive research on bias in the traditional media, this study adds to the literature by making cable news a primary focus of investigation. It tests for (1) evidence of bias in cable news coverage of politics and (2) possible effects of that bias.

This study begins with a content analysis of Fox News and CNN's coverage of the 2004 national party conventions. We test for bias within the context of the party conventions for multiple reasons. First, cable news's role in covering the party conventions has become significant (Morris and Francia 2007; Panagopoulos 2007; Pomper 2007). The three cable networks, Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, combined to draw 8.55 million viewers for the final night of the Republican convention and 6.8 million viewers for their final night of the Democratic convention in 2004 (Project for Excellence in Journalism 2005). Second, viewers of the party conventions were persuadable. …

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