Though the U.S. economic crisis dominated general news coverage—and indeed became one of the biggest stories we've ever recorded—it was another event, the Oct. 2 vice-presidential debate, that drove the 2008 campaign narrative.
From Sept. 29-Oct. 5, the financial meltdown and efforts to fashion a bailout package filled 45% of the overall news coverage examined by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. Not only was that significantly more coverage than the campaign—which filled 34% of the newshole. The financial crisis received the most attention from the media for any non-campaign story in a given week other than the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007.
Yet campaigns for the presidency can take on narratives of their own. And last week, storylines surrounding the Oct. 2 debate between vice presidential contenders Sarah Palin and Joe Biden eclipsed the economy as the No. 1 campaign narrative. The various events connected to the debate accounted for more than half (52%) of last week's election coverage, according to PEJ's Campaign Coverage Index. The biggest storyline was the debate itself, at 45% of the newshole. Other related themes included Katie Couric's much-discussed interview with Palin, (5%), which helped establish the stakes and expectations for the debate. A flap over whether debate moderator Gwen Ifill might harbor a bias toward Barack Obama accounted for another 2%.
The debate's central role in last week's election coverage was also reflected in the competition for media exposure. Last week Palin led all the candidates in coverage, registering as a significant or dominant newsmaker in 51% of the campaign stories. That represents a major increase over the previous week when she was a significant or dominant factor in only 15% of the campaign stories. Biden, who has largely been ignored by the media, was a significant or dominant factor in 30% of the stories last week. That more than doubled his previous high water mark (13%), which occurred the week he was added to the Democratic ticket.
Read the full report Veep Debate, Palin are the Top Campaign Newsmakers on the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.