PEJ Campaign Coverage Index: July 21 - 27, 2008, Amid Charges of Bias, the Media Swarm on Obama Overseas

Jul 29, 2008

Barack Obama’s July 24 speech to a crowd of about 200,000 in Berlin provided a startling campaign visual to punctuate a week of remarkable media attention. A story about the event on CNN.com, complete with video, quoted the network’s European political editor saying Obama “is one of those politicians who reaches parts other politicians don’t reach.”

But not all of the coverage last week was flattering. By the time Obama concluded a week-long overseas tour intended to burnish his geopolitical credentials, some press post-mortems questioned whether adulation abroad would translate into votes at home and whether the candidate had the specifics to back up his popularity. And in a reprise of a primary-season burst of introspection, the press devoted significant attention to whether it was tilting toward the Democrat.

Whatever the tone of the coverage, Obama’s visit to the Middle East and Europe was an extraordinary media event. Coverage of the trip consumed 51% of the campaign newshole for the week of July 21-27, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign Coverage Index. That was enough to make it the second-biggest campaign story line since PEJ began tracking them in mid-March. (Only coverage of the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, during the week of April 21-27, generated more attention.)

The trip also helped Obama, for the seventh consecutive week, dominate John McCain in the contest for media exposure. The Democrat was a significant or dominant factor in 81% of the campaign stories studied compared with 53% for McCain. Interestingly, even with all the attention to Obama’s trip, those numbers dovetail closely with the weekly coverage averages since the general election campaign began in June. In that period, Obama has factored in 79% of the coverage with McCain at 52%.

One reason Obama’s advantage might not have been greater last week was that McCain managed to inject himself into the media narrative by challenging his opponent over Iraq policy and with some counter-programming—including a visit to a German restaurant in Columbus Ohio while Obama was in Germany. But if you combine the top three story lines of the week—Obama’s trip (51% of the newshole), the debate over Iraq that was largely triggered by Obama’s visit there (7%), and press examination of its treatment of Obama (7%)—those three threads account for two-thirds of the week’s campaign coverage.

The biggest story line dominated by McCain was the speculation that he might soon make a vice-presidential pick. It accounted for 4% of the campaign newshole. But even some of those stories were couched in the context of a candidate desperately needing to create news of his own. A July 25 Washington Post story on the GOP veepstakes, for example, noted that McCain “was anxious to counter the blanket media coverage that followed Sen. Barack Obama on his overseas journey.”

Read the full report Amid Charges of Bias, the Media Swarm on Obama Overseas on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.

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