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August 04, 2008

The Media's Pro Obama Bias, By The Numbers

spd rds the WaPo so the Editorial Staff doesn't have to... and finds Ombudsman Deborah Howell taking the Post to task for bias in its campaign coverage:

Barack Obama may be only eight points ahead of John McCain in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, but he's creaming McCain in the number of pictures and stories published in The Post in the past two months.

First, photos. Richard Benedetto, a retired USA Today White House reporter who teaches journalism and political science at American University, studied photos in the A section from June 4, the day after Obama clinched the nomination, to July 14. He shared his research with me, and I expanded it to the whole paper and continued it through Friday with the aid of my assistant, Jean Hwang, photo desk assistant David Snyder and The Post's Merlin photo database.

What we found:

122 photos of Obama have been published in the paper during that time to 78 for McCain, counting tiny to big. Most of those photos ran inside the paper; most on the politics page.

The Page 1 photos are closer: Obama had nine to McCain's seven. Five of Obama's were above the fold; McCain had four. Obama also got more color photos, 72 to 49, and more large photos -- mostly those that spanned three or more columns, 30 to 10.

photos.jpg

stories.jpg

To get a better idea of the sheer magnitude of the distortion, think about this interesting statistic for a moment in context:

To look at the phenom factor, du Cille went to the Merlin database to see how many pictures have been run of Obama since he first appeared in Post pages in 2003. That would be 1,109. McCain's pictures go back to the early days of the database, 1995, with 1,032 published. Obama is still ahead.

Stop and think about that for a moment.

A while back, we attempted to place the debate over Barack Obama's experience into a factual and historical perspective. We think it says something when a sitting Senator with 24 years experience and one presidential campaign already under his belt has gotten less media coverage since 1995 than a neophyte Senator who only arrived on the national scene in 2003. To help underscore this point, we thought a side by side comparison of the candidates' relative experience in the U.S. Senate and relative share of individual news coverage in the Post would be illustrative:

bias.jpg

As Ed Thiede, assistant managing editor of the WaPo's news desk remarked, the data is:

... "eye-opening. We should be more cognizant." Du Cille and Thiede were both surprised at the numbers. Du Cille said, "The disparity in the numbers is indeed hard to reconcile. As photojournalists, we always strive to be fair. We have tried to be balanced, but it seems that in a large operation such as ours, we need to monitor the use of political images even more closely."

Like the song says,

"Every picture tells a story, don't it?"

Thanks to spd for a thought provoking article.

Posted by Cassandra at August 4, 2008 07:45 AM

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Comments

Apart from the evident bias, there's still the fact that Obama's more interesting to more people around the world and so is going to generate more stories, coverage, etc.

Then there's the unique historical context of Obama's candidacy.

This isn't to say that there's no bias. There clearly is, and it's not fair to McCain. But there are also these other factors which should be given some weight as well.

Posted by: Jeffrey at August 4, 2008 11:26 AM

Here's another factor that I just stumbled upon. Lack of press access in the McCain campaign.

http://washingtonindependent.com/view/kurtz-notices-lack

Posted by: Jeffrey at August 4, 2008 11:59 AM

Well, he is not more interesting to me :p

I think that is a subjective bias on your part, Jeffrey. You might try examining your own bias, and perhaps ask yourself how much of a feedback loop is going on there?

For instance, the whole smile thing. One fascinating thing I've notice with conservative candidates: they are always portrayed by the media as mean and unsmiling, yet they are often very warm and funny people. Bob Dole, for instance.

After he conceded the election, he appeared on Jon Stewart's show. He was wildly popular - he went over big time with the audience. It was evident they were just flabbergasted by his warmth and humor. And the guy is really very funny. And also nice. He can trade quips with anyone, as can McCain.

But you won't see the media showing you that side of a conservative candidate, because frankly they are biased. The honest ones admit it.

I give a lot of credit to the Post for honesty here.

I only wish I believed it would make a difference in their reporting. It won't.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 4, 2008 12:01 PM

I rather doubt that's a factor, Jeffrey.

The press have been documenting how the Obama campaign has been stiff-arming them for months - often in ways even the White House hasn't dared to. I've documented that several times here at VC. Yet somehow they manage to cover him anyway :p

Posted by: Cassandra at August 4, 2008 12:04 PM

Hey... interesting article here on an attack on McCain's foreign policy:

Josh Xiong on the Surgeh

He's a big up and coming pro-McCain guy.

Posted by: Don at August 4, 2008 12:12 PM

Cass brought up an important point that occured to me reading the post. It's not just the number of pictures, but the type.

Pictures of a smiling Obama and a frowning McCain will give a very different impression. Also showing Obama shooting hoops conveys young & energetic. McCain will always look stiff because of the torture he endured.

Posted by: Schnauzer at August 4, 2008 12:55 PM

Cass, while I (like everyone) suffer from subjective bias most of the time, my remark about the global interest in Obama isn't even a contested issue. Are you suggesting that, on a world-wide basis, there's an equal amount of interest in both candidates??

Regarding McCain stiff-arming the press, the article that I linked to discusses changes in McCain's interaction with the Press (from frequent to almost none aboard his plane, for example) which are distinctly different (and more off-putting) than Obama's. Not that this explains or forgives the media bias, but I do think that it's a contributing factor.

Posted by: jeffrey at August 4, 2008 01:20 PM

Jeffrey,
you have to ask yourself, "Who is it that is reporting on McCain's stiff-arming of the press?"

Who is it? The League of Women Voters? There is a circular logic at work here. Perhaps you ought to meditate on it, although the internal contradictions might give you a headache.

I recall, in the 2000 primary election cycle, that Sen. McCain was absolutely the darling of the media. Chris Matthews couldn't get enough of him back in 1999-2000, although I doubt that he ever gave Chris a thrill up his leg.
But that was then, when the Media decided they liked McCain better than Bush. This is NOW, when McCain is up against Sen. Obama, the Expected One.

Reality is not that malleable, but the minds of many people are.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha, the unexpected one at August 4, 2008 01:40 PM

I don't think you can fairly describe the Washington Post (which, by the way, is my hometown paper) as a "worldwide" publication Jeffrey :p

It's a paper that focuses mainly on national politics with an emphasis on what goes on on Capitol Hill. Always has been.

And when you're looking at the eight year period before 2003, worldwide interest in Barack Obama isn't even a factor, now is it?

Posted by: Cass at August 4, 2008 01:57 PM

Oh.

And by the way, academia, which has traditionally had a distinctly liberal bent, has studied the economic influence of press coverage before. They have concluded that it is, quite literally, worth money in the bank.

It amounts to free advertising for the recipient, since name recognition is one of the most powerful factors operating in favor of a candidate at the ballot box.

Think about that for a moment.

And then think about the role of your so-called "free, independent, and non-partisan" press.

Yeah. Right.

Posted by: Cass at August 4, 2008 02:00 PM

the article that I linked to discusses changes in McCain's interaction with the Press (from frequent to almost none aboard his plane, for example) which are distinctly different (and more off-putting) than Obama's.

Hmmmm... let's see Jeffrey. During Obama's Iraq and Afghanistan tour, he ... oooh! stiffed the press!

http://www.truthout.org/article/obama-charms-angry-reporters

The disgruntled media pack clashed with Obama's team on the flight from Amman to Israel. The team offered an off-the-record account of a meeting between him and King Abdullah of Jordan: the reporters wanted it on the record, arguing it was presumptuous of Obama to expect White House rules on anonymity to apply while he was just a candidate. The Obama team walked away. There was another, bigger gripe. No journalist had accompanied Obama on one of the most newsworthy parts of the trip, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the television and print journalists had to rely on camera footage shot by the US military and a Senate aide on his mobile phone, raising questions about the ethics of using such material. Obama was able to get pictures of himself in the war zones on US domestic television while retaining total control.

MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell, who is covering the trip, went on air this week to complain about "fake interviews because they are not interviews from a journalist" but by the military.

The tetchiness was not confined to the travelling pack. Journalists left in the US, including Washington-based foreign correspondents, expressed unhappiness. Christopher von Marschall, Washington bureau chief of the Berlin-based daily Der Tagesspiegel, who has written a biography of Obama, complained about the candidate's "dirty little secret", saying that Obama had failed to take foreign journalists with him and in general was reluctant to make time for foreign journalists.

It is unusual for Obama to get a bad press. His media team, led by strategist David Axelrod, a former Chicago Tribune political correspondent, has been disciplined and relatively leak-free, and generally more accessible than Hillary Clinton's during the primary campaigns.

Only when polls are published can the success of the trip be judged. A Republican National Committee memo published yesterday anticipated Obama would receive a "bump" in the polls.

The crowds in Berlin will reassure Americans wanting to be loved again after the Bush years. But there is a potential downside to these scenes. Tucker Bounds, McCain's spokesman, described the Berlin scenes as "a premature victory lap", an angle that the Republicans will exploit in the months ahead. They can combine it with Obama's cancellation of a visit to US troops in hospital in Germany. Responding to criticism about the presence of so few foreign journalists on the plane, Linda Douglass, Obama's spokeswoman, told the Guardian from Berlin that there had been 200 media requests to accompany Obama but 40 places. As for the lack of reporters on the Afghanistan and Iraq legs, she said: "It was an official Congressional visit ... The trip had nothing to do with the campaign."

WHAT A LOAD OF BS.

Posted by: Cass at August 4, 2008 02:13 PM

And then there's this gem :p

The press corps was appeased when Obama, who prefers to sit on planes with his iPod and press cuttings or a book, ignoring staff and journalists, made a rare trip to the back of the Boeing en route from Israel to banter with reporters.

Posted by: Cass at August 4, 2008 02:15 PM

...as opposed to McCain, who has has a reputation for bantering with the press, but who may well by now have gotten a bit fed up with the lack of coverage and decided to give the local press a chance to do what the national press obviously are unwilling to do ... i.e., cover his side of the campaign.

Posted by: Cass at August 4, 2008 02:17 PM

This also doesn't factor in whether those stories raise people's perception of Obama or McCain. If you have 30 stories to 5 stories, yet those 30 stories are about how you're old and incompetent while the 5 stories for your opponent is about how he is a glorious messiah, then that is far more impactful than the numbers would suggest by themselves.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 4, 2008 02:31 PM

Apart from media bias, the single most important consideration in news stories is will it sell?

So let me ask you, Cass. Who do you think is going to sell more papers or get more viewers worldwide - stories about McCain or stories about Obama?

Posted by: Jeffrey at August 4, 2008 02:53 PM

That depends on the stories the author wants to tell.

McCain certainly didn't have problems getting "face-time" with the press previously. Oh, that's right. Back then, McCain was acting the part of the Anti-Republican. The Media loved him back then. In fact many of us used to call him "McCain (D-Media)" for a reason.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at August 4, 2008 03:34 PM

Not just the number of photos, but the style: how many Obamagraphs do you remember that are taken from below (to accentuate the height - and loftiness - of the candidate, or how many show hin silhoutetted against a halo of light, or with a cross in the background?

Cass- I don't think Jeffery is completely off the track. Today's Drudge carries an article where the McCain campaign ejected a reporter in Florida. The reporter just happened to be a black guy, and one other reporter who questioned the Secret Service about it was also ejected. No reasons given.

McCain has to fight to get his name in the papers these days, and pissing off the press isn't helping.

On the other hand, Jeffrey: "Who do you think is going to sell more papers or get more viewers worldwide - stories about McCain or stories about Obama?"

Papers will sell no matter who's on the front page. And I doubt that the international editions make up that much of their revenue.

We might also ask why Obamagraphs sell better than McCain's. It wouldn't be because the papers have been pushing Obama like late-night TV commercials, would it?

Posted by: ZZMike at August 4, 2008 04:06 PM

I agree that beggars can't be choosers.

On the other hand, Jeffrey maintains that there is some special deal with Obama (i.e, that there is something special about him). There was a rather funny article in Newsbusters, ironically that featured the very same reporter (Howard Kurtz, who I think happens to be fairly unbiased). He and a CNN reporter were talking on air and admitted that the media are biased towards Obama, and not only that, but there is really nothing different or special about Obama :p

Which was pretty much the consensus when he was running against Hillary. Same platform, yadda yadda yadda. It's just the lack of in depth analysis that prevents anyone from figuring that out - IOW, the press aren't doing their jobs.

Kind of amusing.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 4, 2008 04:14 PM

Check this out - Yahoo's Most Viewed News in real time

http://news.yahoo.com/i/1776

In the top 22:
Obama mentions: 3
McCain mentions: 0

And it's not because Yahoo News didn't have any McCain stories today. It did.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080804/ap_on_el_pr/mccain_3

People are clicking on Obama stories more frequently, which goes back to my point about public interest in him v McCain.

Posted by: Jeffrey at August 4, 2008 04:26 PM

You are missing my point, Jeffrey.

I am sure that there is more public interest, but to what extent is that a function of the qualitative kind of coverage Obama receives?

You are deliberately ignoring that, despite my prior comment bringing it to your attention.

*sigh*

Posted by: Cassandra at August 4, 2008 04:30 PM

Well, Cass, the Media is doing its job.

It's just not the "job" that sorta matches the publicly accepted "job description" of the Mass Media. But it is some kind of "job". They move about, they write things down, things get published or shown on TV.

Hmmmm. What kind of job is that?

Posted by: Don Brouhaha, on the job at August 4, 2008 04:32 PM

He and a CNN reporter were talking on air...

I wonder if there are now two more vacancies available in the rear of O-Force One.

http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2008/08/03/politics/fromtheroad/entry4317827.shtml

Nice embroidery on the "President"'s throne...

Posted by: BillT at August 4, 2008 04:33 PM

People are clicking on Obama stories more frequently, which goes back to my point about public interest in him v McCain.

Which is another hint that the author doesn't know the art of propaganda or wishes to appear that he is ignorant in the field.

But not even statistics can pierce that veil, Cass.

Apart from media bias, the single most important consideration in news stories is will it sell?

After awhile, reality just keeps butting in with inconvenient truth's like MoveOn's ad in the New York Times against Petraeus that went for far less than other companies wishing a front page ad.

There's claims by people and then there's reality that contradicts those claims. Yet people are still invested in their illusions.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 4, 2008 06:48 PM

Cass wrote: "I am" sure that there is more public interest, but to what extent is that a function of the qualitative kind of coverage Obama receives?

You are deliberately ignoring that, despite my prior comment bringing it to your attention."

As far as I can see, I've agreed with your point several times already, Cass. There is media bias favoring Obama. You're essential point is correct in my opinion.

All that I'm trying to explain, and this will be my last attempt at it, is that there are other factors in addition to media bias; one of which is that there is a greater consumer demand for stories about Obama vs McCain (see my Yahoo post as an example) and that Media pays attention to what type of reporting is going to sell more papers, increase viewership, etc.

Posted by: Jeffrey at August 4, 2008 07:44 PM

*sigh*

They are two distinct points, Jeffrey. I read through your comments, and you admitted there was bias. You did not admit the point I am making.

1. The media, because of their bias, are "selling" Obama to the public because they want him to win the election.

2. This actively feeds the increased public interest you cite as the reason the media are covering Obama more. IOW, it's not entirely an organic phenomenon.

It's interesting to note, by the way, that he appears (despite all this amazing interest and approval from the public) to be falling behind in the polls :p). Go figure.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 4, 2008 08:11 PM

OK, well we definitely disagree on that point. The "media" isn't that powerful. If it was, there wouldn't be any summer movie doldrums or television series cancellations. The producers could just pay sufficient money to get the media coverage necessary to convince the public that they really did "like" that TV show about watching glaciers melt.

In fact, you pointed out your own argument's biggest flaw - Obama and McCain are almost neck and neck in the polls. That shouldn't be the case if the media had as much power to sway public opinion as you seem to think they do.

Posted by: Jeffrey at August 4, 2008 08:34 PM

Well, I think in this case it may actually have backfired. I'm not sure yet because we are watching this unfold in real time and I am always suspicious of people who want to declare that they know what is going on definitively before the game is over.

My gut, however, is telling me that Obama has been trying to carefully script his appearances and for a while that helped him. But I think there may be two things going on. One, a bit over overexposure - a little of the mystique has worn off and now people are starting to look at him more critically. And two, his self-chosen image isn't wearing all that well. He is coming off as presumptuous. People don't like that, and to the extent that the media helped him to get his message out, it may actually harm him.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 4, 2008 08:59 PM

People don't like that, and to the extent that the media helped him to get his message out, it may actually harm him.

Similar to how the media hyped up the violence in January for Iraq's first voting, then when nothing really happened that they could digest, they had to admit that they were "stunned" and surprised and happy or some such muck. In effect, they had proven wrong by a bat to the head and couldn't deny it. They could have if they hadn't produced so much news predicting violence, however.

Then again, that didn't stop them for Katrina or the news of the Miner's Deaths either.

2. This actively feeds the increased public interest you cite as the reason the media are covering Obama more. IOW, it's not entirely an organic phenomenon.

Now, now, Cass, you know you shouldn't worry your pretty head about connecting points in abstract space with something as onerous as logic. You don't want to make yourself tired again, do you?

The "media" isn't that powerful.

There's an action and then there's the consequences and reaction to the action. But Jeff says the action isn't powerful enough, even though he admits it exists... very funny.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 4, 2008 09:06 PM

To be honest... spd rdr spd dumps the articles on The Princess so he doesn't actually have to read them himself. :-)

Posted by: spd rdr at August 4, 2008 10:53 PM

Well if we're be all honest about it, the Princess didn't get around to reading it herself until yesterday morning :p

But when I did, I was blown away. It was a good article.

Ymar, I see this as similar to the widely studied relationship between media coverage of the insurgency and terrorist acts in Iraq. It's easy to say "the media aren't that powerful", but the evidence doesn't actually support that hypothesis. When you look at the actual evidence, there is empirical support for a strong correlation between media coverage and many activities. People often do things in order to get the attention of the media and if they are successful (if they are able to get the press to give them free advertising) this rewards the activity and they do more of whatever it is.

Conversely, intense press coverage (up to a point) also helps create a demand for more press coverage. There is always such a thing as saturation or a point of diminishing marginal return. But the media are professionals. If they cover the Natalee Holloway story in a sensational fashion, it creates celebrity where there was none before - she was just one more female murder victim. It was the way her murder was relentlessly kept in the spotlight that created the sensation.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 5, 2008 07:03 AM

but the evidence doesn't actually support that hypothesis

Given that Jeffrey has the power to go back into the past, change some things according to his preference, and make a reliable statement of fact that things will be the same in the future, what need such folks for "evidence"? Doesn't particularly useful to them, even if it is to us.

this rewards the activity and they do more of whatever it is.

Not everyone agrees on what human nature is or how people will act in certain situations. Chamberlain's misreading of Hitler, FDR's misreading of Stalin, and the USSR's misreading of America, would never have happened if people were accurate in their sense of what motivates or does not motivate people to do things.

The only objective standard to determine who was right is based upon who won. Who got things right, who killed the other guy because he predicted their moves better than the other guy did his.

What this means is that people will always find reasons and justifications for why their read on a situation is right and yours is wrong, Cass. The media is in the role of actively testing out their hypothesis, so in the final tally whether they are right or not, powerful or not, is determined by our actions in fighting them. If they win or we let them win and allow Iraq to go under like when the media declared and enforced the same decree for Vietnam, then their power and judgment will have been assured for another few decades.

If they cover the Natalee Holloway story in a sensational fashion, it creates celebrity where there was none before - she was just one more female murder victim. It was the way her murder was relentlessly kept in the spotlight that created the sensation.

I think Bush should have sent in the Marines on the pretext that foreign American citizens don't lose military protections just because they are tourists. It would have helped him in the polls and it would have been the right thing to do. It may not have been the lawful or the Constitutional thing to do, but when there's a will, there's always a way. Especially for the US President.

But, as you and I know, the United States is all too solicitous of other nation's "sovereignty". No other power in history has been that way nor been that way to this degree.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 5, 2008 07:16 PM

I wish Benedetto and Howell had done the big study that "proved" Clinton wasn't getting more negative press than Obama. That study was so flawed it's a disgrace to study-dom.

It was super-clever of Benedetto to think of looking at photos - something than can be easily quantified. Yes, the nature of the photo can be biased but the count disparity makes it harder for the Post to dismiss charges of bias as baseless.

With regard to the issue of whether Obama is more interesting and the one (heh, heh) people want to read about, look what turned up on Politico today:

Obama fatigue

Pew reports:

Close to half (48%) of Pew's interviewees went on to say that they have been hearing too much about Obama lately. And by a slight, but statistically significant margin - 22% to 16% - people say that recently they have a less rather than more favorable view of the putative Democratic nominee.

In contrast, if anything, Pew's respondents said they want to hear more, not less about the Republican candidate. Just 26% in the poll said they had heard too much about McCain, while a larger number (38%) reported that they had heard too little about the putative Republican candidate. However, as for Obama, a slight plurality reports that recently they have come to have a less favorable view of McCain rather than a more favorable view of him - (23% to 18%).

A bit of good news for Obama: The process distinction is penetrating.

Most of those who are aware of Obama's commercials say they are mostly positive messages about the candidate (38%), while fewer (13%) characterize them as negative messages about McCain. The balance of opinion about McCain's commercials is the opposite - a plurality (31%) sees them as negative messages about his opponent, with fewer (19%) describing them as positive ads.

One caution (as always with Pew): If you actually read the Pew summary Politico links to, you'll see the only choices given with regard to the ads were:
- mostly positive about ad-runner
- mostly negative about opponent
- neither/don’t know

These choices don’t address perceptions of accuracy. For example, if an Obama ad is perceived as mostly negative about McCain and false the impression left would be different than if an Obama ad is perceived as mostly negative about McCain and true.

Caveat: I haven’t read the entire report or the questionnaire yet. I’ve found in the past that Pew doesn’t always include in its summary the information I find most enlightening.

Posted by: EliseK at August 6, 2008 11:51 AM

Jack Cafferty is a biased hack ... instead of being an objective journalist, he's consistently chosen to be in the tank for Obama. When McCain wins in November, Cafferty and the rest of the media cronies who have tried to cram Obama down our throats, will all be irrelevant.

Posted by: Howard at August 20, 2008 03:44 AM

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