The Washington Post ombudsperson did a study (registration required) of reporting on Obama and McCain in the last several months. I was actually a bit surprised by how little bias was revealed. Here are some of the most relevant numbers.
The number of Obama stories since Nov. 11 was 946, compared with McCain’s 786. Both had hard-fought primary campaigns, but Obama’s battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton was longer, and the numbers reflect that.
McCain clinched the GOP nomination on March 4, three months before Obama won his. From June 4 to Election Day, the tally was Obama, 626 stories, and McCain, 584. Obama was on the front page 176 times, McCain, 144 times; 41 stories featured both.
Only 626 to 584? Or 176 to 144? That’s nothing; Obama is simply more newsworthy than McCain. For one thing, it’s not news that McCain is running for president; after all, he’s done it before. Just the fact that Obama’s black counts for a bit of newsworthiness, though hopefully that will never be true again. More important than either of these effects, though, is the fact that both campaigns were more about Obama than McCain. McCain talked about Obama far more than Obama talked about McCain, mostly to attack but that doesn’t matter from the perspective of making news. It shouldn’t be a surprise that what the media talk about is what the candidates talk about. The McCain camp made the decision to run an anti-Obama campaign instead of a pro-McCain one, and that alone should result in more than the 7-22% difference actually seen in news coverage.
Moving from news to opinion – separate functions of a newspaper, as all should know – here’s another bit of information.
The op-ed page ran far more laudatory opinion pieces on Obama, 32, than on Sen. John McCain, 13. There were far more negative pieces about McCain, 58, than there were about Obama, 32, and Obama got the editorial board’s endorsement. The Post has several conservative columnists, but not all were gung-ho about McCain.
That’s a more drastic difference but, again, this is op-ed and therefore not supposed to be objective like news reports are. Personally, I think the results reflect the actual merit of the candidates rather well. More importantly, they track the electoral-college results. Should the op-ed page of a major newspaper not be reflective of the people’s own opinions about issues or candidates? Even editorial writers should be honest, yes, and diligent (I’ve criticized Boston Globe columnists enough times for lacking either quality), but fairness does not consist of assigning equal weight despite unequal merit. To make WaPo’s coverage of the election more equal – or “balanced” as Faux News would have it – would require making it less fair in the sense that matters.
Lastly, here’s the most significant type of imbalance evident in media coverage of the election.
The count was lopsided, with 1,295 horse-race stories and 594 issues stories. The Post was deficient in stories that reported more than the two candidates trading jabs; readers needed articles, going back to the primaries, comparing their positions with outside experts’ views. There were no broad stories on energy or science policy, and there were few on religion issues.
Bill Hamilton, assistant managing editor for politics, said, “There are a lot of things I wish we’d been able to do in covering this campaign, but we had to make choices about what we felt we were uniquely able to provide our audiences both in Washington and on the Web. I don’t at all discount the importance of issues, but we had a larger purpose, to convey and explain a campaign that our own David Broder described as the most exciting he has ever covered, a narrative that unfolded until the very end. I think our staff rose to the occasion.”
I completely disagree with Hamilton’s attitude, and even find it objectionable from someone in his position. With respect to the balance between issues vs. horse-race reporting, I think the reporters at WaPo and elsewhere rather sank to the occasion, functioning as entertainers and not the journalists they’re supposed to be – and I think that’s a point on which I might find some support even among those who disagree with me ideologically.