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Charting the media's political coverage

January 31, 2008 |  2:14 pm

As the battles for the two major party nominations narrow down to the short lists, and with possible Waterloos looming next week on Super Tuesday, the Project for Excellence in Journalism has just released a report analyzing how the media is covering the campaign.

The report finds a mixed bag, to be sure, but the upshot is that the media pay an awful lot of attention to the front-runners. And any political reporter who has spent time on the trail has heard from supporters of lower-tier candidates -- from Ron Paul to Dennis Kucinich -- about how if the media would just give the candidate some attention, the campaign would flourish.

The folks at Medill Reports -- journalism graduate students at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. -- digest the report here, looking at what comes first in this chicken-egg conundrum. And it is one of those unresolvable issues. Yes, if the media paid more attention to, say, Paul, then more people might know more about his positions. But if the candidate is not doing ...

anything that warrants news coverage, then should media outlets gin up stories just for the perception of equal time?

And would more coverage necessarily mean more support? That's unclear. As we've found in politics, familiarity can breed contempt. The idea of a candidate is sometimes more alluring than the reality of the candidate. Remember those heady days when conservatives were hoping Fred Thompson would get in the race?

The most interesting about the journalism report is the finding that Bill Clinton received more media attention than just about any of the candidates. But that just points up the problem of such studies. The story leading up to the South Carolina Democratic primary was how much the former president had injected himself in the campaign, and it was hardly flattering coverage. Same for Hillary Clinton's media mentions -- a large proportion come as hits on talk radio.

The reality is that the media are drawn to drama, same as news consumers. That John Edwards was giving the same stump speech for the third day in a row wasn't news. That Paul's poll numbers have remained flat despite raising a workable campaign kitty is no longer news. Same with the candidates' policy positions. When the issues figure in newsmaking events such as debates, then there is some coverage. But otherwise, issue coverage is usually handled in issue stories.

And if reader e-mails is any indicator, a lot more people are interested in the horse-race stories than in the policy stories.

-- Scott Martelle