This morning I attended an event organized by the Council for Excellence in Government for the unveiling of a study designed to gauge the coverage of government in the news media. It made some interesting points, but I couldn’t help thinking about the flaws in the study. It drew conclusions about the changes in media coverage over the last 20 years, but the study consisted of only a 3 year sample – 1981, 1993, and 2001 – the first years of the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II administrations. I would have preferred that the study looked at, say, the second or third years to eliminate the “honeymoon” period.
Also, the study was limited to the big three network news broadcasts, the New York Times and the Washington Post, and a handful of regional papers. No cable news channels, radio, or websites were included (and would have been non-existent in 1981).
Anyway, here are some of the more interesting findings:
The broadcast network evening news programs’ “news hole” shrank by nearly four minutes in the past twenty years. The average amount of time devoted to news, rather than commercials and promos, was 22 minutes, 22 seconds in 1981; in 1993 it was 20 minutes, 33 seconds; and in 2001 it was 18 minutes, 37 seconds.
This means that during a half-hour news broadcast, 11 minutes is commercials and clutter.
News stories about the federal government dropped by nearly 30 percent from 1981 to 2001, despite a surge of coverage after 9/11. Had it not been for the 9/11 attacks, the government would have gotten 40 percent less coverage than it did during Ronald Reagan’s first year in office in 1981.
Personal coverage of the president dropped with each new administration. This contradicts the widespread notion that news – especially television news – has become more focused on the “person” of the president. Ronald Reagan received more than 500 more stories on the network evening news shows than George W. Bush did twenty years later.
I wonder if this is in part due to the fact that Bush almost never gives press conferences and generally keeps a veil of secrecy over his presidency?
The Clinton administration and its policies received significantly better press than the Reagan administration, and slightly more favorable coverage than George W. Bush’s administration. Clinton’s held the strongest edge on domestic policy issues.
But… note the next one:
… Government fared best in 1993 with 38 percent positive evaluations and worst in 1981 with 30 percent positive judgements.
So, it’s not a question of who was treated better, but who was portrayed negatively less often. Clinton may have received “significantly” better treatment, but at only 38 percent, that’s hardly a glowing endorsement of his government.
The entire report is available on the Council’s website.