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Which comes first -- media coverage or campaign success?

by Marisol Rodriguez
Jan 29, 2008

It's less than a week from Super Tuesday and the numbers are in:  29 percent for Hillary Clinton, 27.8 percent for Barack Obama and 6.1 percent for John Edwards.

That's not the election results, but the breakdown of campaign stories about the leading Democratic candidates for president. Trouble is, some observers say, the amount of news coverage affects the amount of votes each campaign gathers.

The figures are from the Campaign Coverage Index for the week of Jan. 14-20, compiled by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research organization affiliated with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

This report, the most recent that analyzes coverage by candidate, mentions Senators Clinton of New York, Obama of Illinois and former Sen. Edwards of North Carolina. The last remaining candidate, former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, didn't make the cut -- a fate similar to his results in this year's primaries.

The project examines media sources including network TV news, newspapers, online news sites, cable news and radio news, according to their methodology web page.

Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, doesn’t see any problem with more coverage for candidates who are leading in the polls. “I don’t think it’s an unethical thing to do. I think that’s what the appropriate thing to do is,” Kirtley said.

But Andrew Rojecki, professor of political communications at the University of Illinois Chicago, said it is hard to tell which comes first: that a candidate doesn’t do well in the polls due to lack of coverage, or the candidate doesn’t receive coverage due to low numbers at the polls.

David Bright, a campaign team member for Dennis Kucinich's stymied effort and former reporter for Bangor (Maine) Daily News, was certain of the media’s role in undercutting his candidate’s chance for election. Bright noted ABC invited Kucinich to a debate in New Hampshire, and then preceded to un-invite him.

"The media's job was to disappear Dennis Kucinich," Bright said.

Rojecki does not think American voters will make the most informed decision during the primaries because the media has given minimal coverage of the candidates' stances on political issues.

According to “The Invisible Primary,” a report published by The Project for Excellence in Journalism in October 2007 that looked at media coverage during the early months of the 2008 presidential campaign, 63 percent of campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign, while only 15 percent focused on the candidates’ ideas and policy proposals.

While Mark Jurkowitz, the project's associate director, said it is too early to determine the media’s role in the 2008 presidential primaries, the project has witnessed certain trends, one of which is Clinton’s consistent dominance in the media.

“What we’ve seen is that Hillary Clinton has generated the most attention,” Jurkowitz said. “One of the reasons we found that she gets so much coverage is because she is by far the favorite target of conservative talk hosts on talk radio…so even though she gets a lot of coverage, not all of its is flattering.”

Bright also saw some irony in how the media covered his candidate. Though Kucinich was arguably the most liberal of Democratic candidates, Bright said, one cable outlet gave him the most coverage -- "FOX Network."