By: Debra Gersh
Freedom Forum Media Studies Center
issues its fourth report on media
coverage of the presidential campaign
NOW THAT THE presidential election of 1992 is behind us, media watchers can turn their attention to analysis and critique of the press’s performance.
In its fourth, and final, report on 1992 campaign coverage, the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University concluded that coverage of the 1992 campaign generally was thoughtful, flexible and resourceful, especially after the “highly disappointing and flawed performance in 1988.”
In an introductory “Memo to the Press,” center director Everette E. Dennis pointed out that “It was widely accepted that the recession and various cutbacks in print and broadcast news divisions would lead to lower quality public affairs coverage and less news coverage overall. The opposite was true.”
After a midcampaign reassessment of their work, the news media made some significant improvements, according to Dennis. They include:
? Avoiding predictable visual opportunities and sound bites.
? Greater reader- and viewer-oriented coverage.
? Less emphasis on horse-race polls.
? More attention to the dynamics and process of the campaign.
? Advertising watches on television and in print.
? Continuity in covering personal integrity issues.
? Fact-checking of claims made by candidates.
? Flexibility in handling unexpected events.
? Use of new technologies.
? Expanding and modifying news coverage to build candidates’ use of direct-access media, such as talk shows.
The 182-page study, which includes detailed analytical and historical reports, found a number of features that characterized coverage of the presidential and vice presidential debates, as well as local and national Election Night reporting.
When it came to the debates, the center found that coverage “provided very little information that was different from what audiences learned through watching the events themselves.”
The media also showed a tendency to report their own public-opinion polls “more completely” than those conducted by other news organizations, and the report warned of the “benefits and pitfalls” of instant-response polls.
According to Dennis, many pollsters agree that the “quality of polling has been on the decline in recent years due largely to the high refusal rate of potential respondents.”
He further charged that polls were “handled badly and in disturbing ways . . . . For the most part, media stuck to their own polls and probably shortchanged the public in the process.”
Despite charges that the news media favored the Clinton/
Gore ticket, in the last four months of the campaign, mainstream coverage of the Democrats and the GOP was about equal, the study reported, although in the ethnic press, coverage was “slightly skewed” in favor of the Democrats.
Discussed fervently throughout the campaign, the “character issue” nevertheless remained unresolved at the end of the presidential season, according to the report.
“While most serious commentators would argue that character is important in presidential politics, they would also contend that character is more than adultery and that the real test of bringing the private life of individual politicians into public view is its relevancy to their performance in office,” Dennis wrote.
“Most important in this election year compared to past coverage is the enormous good will of people in the media who did take seriously their disappointing report card in 1988 and who openly discussed their dilemma and gave the public better and more responsive information,” Dennis pointed out.
He challenged the news media “to harness the intense interest in public affairs demonstrated in the election coverage to reporting on the new administration and other matters of public interest.”