PEJ Campaign Coverage Index: August 11 - 17, 2008, War in Georgia is Bigger News than the Campaign

Aug 19, 2008

The fighting between Russia and Georgia was the biggest story in the U.S. media last week, marking the first week in nine months when the presidential race did not generate the most coverage, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The conflict in the Caucasus, which raised the specter of a re-ignited Cold War, accounted for 26% of all the overall coverage last week, according to PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index for the week of Aug. 11-17. The campaign, at 21%, generated its lowest level of weekly coverage since last December—before the first caucus or primary vote was cast.

The crisis in Georgia also quickly became a major campaign issue. Stories about the conflict primarily involving the candidates’ views were the No. 1 election storyline, accounting for 14% of the campaign coverage studied by PEJ.

For the ninth time in 10 weeks, moreover, Obama generated more coverage than his rival, even during a week when he was vacationing. The Democrat registered as a significant or dominant factor in 63% of the campaign stories studied, compared with 50% for McCain.

But it was a week that offered a reminder that more does not necessarily mean better. Last week McCain reaped some positive coverage for his aggressive approach to the crisis between Russia and Georgia. And a number of post mortems gave him good marks for his performance during an Aug. 16 forum on values and religion at a California mega-church. At the same time, Obama again faced a media narrative focused on a divided Democratic Party and his tricky relationship with the Clintons.

Another major storyline last week also did not bring good tidings for Obama. A new attack book called “Obama Nation”—from the man who co-authored “Unfit for Command” about John Kerry in 2004—accounted for 6% of the campaign news. Even as stories questioned author Jerome Corsi’s accuracy and motives, the book made Page 1 of the New York Times and Washington Post and Corsi hit the talk show circuit in a major way.

With the war in Georgia leading the campaign discussion and the economy accounting for another 5% of the narrative, all the policy issues combined accounted for 23% of the week’s campaign coverage. Once again, however, the episodic nature of the campaign was highlighted as coverage of energy policy fell to less than 1%. Only a week earlier, it had been the No. 1 election theme, accounting for 23% of the coverage.

Read the full report War in Georgia is Bigger News than the Campaign on the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.

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