Report

Character and the Primaries of 2008

  • May 29, 2008

If campaigns for president are in part a battle for control of the master narrative about character, Democrat Barack Obama has not enjoyed a better ride in the press than rival Hillary Clinton, according to a new study of primary coverage by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

From January 1, just before the Iowa caucuses, through March 9, following the Texas and Ohio contests, the height of the primary season, the dominant personal narratives in the media about Obama and Clinton were almost identical in tone, and were both twice as positive as negative, according to the study, which examined the coverage of the candidates' character, history, leadership and appeal—apart from the electoral results and the tactics of their campaigns. 

The trajectory of the coverage, however, began to turn against Obama, and did so well before questions surfaced about his pastor Jeremiah Wright. Shortly after Clinton criticized the media for being soft on Obama during a debate, the narrative about him began to turn more skeptical—and indeed became more negative than the coverage of Clinton herself. What's more, an additional analysis of more general campaign topics suggests the Obama narrative became even more negative later in March, April and May.

On the Republican side, John McCain, the candidate who quickly clinched his party's nomination, has had a harder time controlling his message in the press. Fully 57% of the narratives studied about him were critical in nature, though a look back through 2007 reveals the storyline about the Republican nominee has steadily improved with time.

Public perceptions of McCain and Obama, a companion survey shows, largely tracked with the tenor of the press coverage's major narrative themes. With Hillary Clinton, however, the public seemed to have developed opinions about her that ran counter to the media coverage, perhaps based on a pre-existing negative disposition to her that unfolded over the course of the campaign.

These are some of the findings of the study, conducted by PEJ, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Shorenstein Center, which is part of the Harvard Kennedy School. The study first examined the dominant personal narratives about the candidates in the media during the heat of the primary season. Next, in conjunction with the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, the study measured how these media portrayals were registering with the public.

Read the full report Character and the Primaries of 2008 on the Project for Excellence in Journalism's Web site.