Study: Media Hits Bush Hard on ‘Character’, But Hasn’t Helped Kerry

By: E&P Staff

A new study related to the 2004 presidential race, released Sunday night, suggests that President George W. Bush has been hit harder and more often in the media this year than his likely opponent, Sen. John Kerry, mainly for being “stubborn and arrogant” and “lacking credibility.” Negative reflections on his character have outnumbered the positive by 3 to 1.

But Kerry has his own problem: most people have trouble associating any character traits with him beyond him being a “flip flopper.” This “suggests he remains vulnerable to being defined by the Republicans,” the study concludes. Few Americans, for example, consider Kerry “a tough guy who won’t back down.”

This means, according to the study (which includes a new Pew survey), that both candidates “have failed to gain control of the campaign dialogue projected in the press.”

The study also found that four in 10 assertions in the media about the candidates’ character were made with no evidence to back them up. And it discovered that in “battleground states,” press coverage had more impact on public opinion than advertising; and campaign ads overall have “had only a limited effect.”

These are some of the findings of the “Character and the Campaign” study, conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in collaboration with the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In includes a public opinion survey by the Pew Research Center.

The study looked at news coverage (in a mix of newspapers, TV and radio outlets, and Internet sites), the candidates’ own advertising, and even late night comedy programs.

So far, press coverage, and negative assertions, have focused on Bush, but this may only reflect the fact that Bush is the incumbent president and often sits at the center of news, the study points out. A similar study four years ago found that coverage was more positive for Bush than the sitting vice president, Al Gore.

The new study found that character assertions were just as likely to appear in newspapers as on TV, but newspapers were twice as likely to suggest that Bush “lacked credibility.” Newspapers were also much more prone to paint Kerry as “elitist.”

How has this influenced those crucial swing voters? Not much so far. The study shows that these characters themes “are mostly lost” on undecided voters, partly because they are paying less attention to the campaign than others.

The fact that campaign ads in swing states seem to be having little impact on sizing up the candidates’ character means that “if the tenor of the press coverage continues to be negative for the president, this could spell more trouble for him over time in these battleground states.”

One unusual section of the study concerns late night comedy shows, comparing the messages put out by Jay Leno, David Letterman, and John Stewart (on Comedy Central). A Pew survey earlier this year showed that one in five young people regularly get campaign news from comedy shows.

“The most common political punchline,” the study found, “is a holdover from campaign 2000. It’s the idea that Bush is dim or somehow not up to being president intellectually.” However, this sentiment shows up so rarely in the public opinion polls that the study concludes that while the jokes still get laughs they are “largely written off as good-natured ribbing” by voters in 2004.

The report that accompanies the study calls the Leno show “the least edgy,” while Letterman offers “more pointed” barbs about Bush, and Stewart’s show rarely rides Kerry (but when it does, its host’s “elbows are sharp”).

The six newspapers considered by this study were The Washington Post (Click for QuikCap), The New York Times, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee and The Dallas Morning News.

The study may be somewhat dated. It ended on June 5, and by then the negative appraisals of the candidates were trailing off. Most of the negative opinions had appeared back in March and April.

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