A new journalism study reveals news coverage about the federal government has plummeted in the last two decades, and the amount provided tends to favor Democrats over Republicans.

The report, entitled “Government: In and Out of the News,” is being issued by the Washington-based Council for Excellence in Government.

The study examined more than 400 hours of airtime from the broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) as well as some 13,000 front-page newspaper articles from national publications (the New York Times and Washington Post), and four regional papers: the Austin American-Statesman, Des Moines Register, San Jose Mercury News, and St. Petersburg Times.

13,000 front-page articles examined in 20-year study of news

It found the number of stories touching on the federal government since 1981 dropped by 31 percent on TV, by 12 percent in the national print press and by 39 percent in the regional newspapers.

The report focused on news during the first year of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and found coverage of all three combined was nearly two to one negative in tone, with Republicans the recipients of more negative reports.

News stories most often focused on the executive branch, comprising 70 percent of content in newspapers and 80 percent of network news.

According to the study:

The proportion of favorable comments toward the executive branch ranged from a high of only 40 percent positive (i.e., 60 percent negative) toward the Clinton administration on network news, to a low of 25 percent positive (vs. 75 percent negative) toward the Reagan administration in the New York Times.

Similarly, congressional Democrats received “only” 2-to-1 margins of criticism over praise, compared to an even worse three-to-one negative margin of opinions about Republicans. This was less a question of which party was praised more than of which party was criticized less.

Coverage of Congress at times had more than a 10-to-1 negative margin, irrespective of party affiliation.

The analysis noted a dramatic increase in the amount of opinion that’s embedded with news reports, “as the emphasis of political news shifts from factual description to analysis and judgment.”

It found an overall 20 percent hike in the amount of opinionated evaluations in stories, with television news a “startling” force for change, more than doubling the amount of evaluations with an increase of 138 percent.

Dan Rather currently in ratings cellar (CBS photo)

“The surge in opinions expressed in the network newscasts is a powerful indicator of a shift toward a more analytical and judgmental style of presenting government news on television,” the summary noted.

Overall, the study shows the Clinton administration receiving more favorable coverage than its Republican counterparts, but the difference was clearest between the Clinton and Reagan terms:

Based on all evaluations, Clinton’s administration was favored over Reagan’s to a statistically significant degree in all news genres – television news, the Times and Post, and the regional newspapers. In addition, Clinton’s domestic policies were treated significantly better than Reagan’s at all press outlets studied, and his foreign policies fared better in television news and the regional newspapers. …

By contrast, George W. Bush’s presidency was treated about equally with Clinton’s in the national media, except for a slight tilt toward the Clinton team’s domestic policy in the New York Times. In the regional papers, however, the Clinton administration was favored overall, as well as in the realm of domestic policy.

Other key findings from the research:

  • Personal coverage of the president is on a continual decline, contradicting the notion that news – especially television – has become more focused on the “person” of the president.

  • Congress accounted for less than one in four discussions of government in the print press, and one in six on television, while the judicial branch accounted for only 3 percent.

  • Journalists are relying less on unnamed sources, opting instead for independent experts outside government.

  • The amount of actual news presented in a typical half-hour newscast has dwindled from 22 minutes, 22 seconds in 1981 to just 18 minutes, 37 seconds in 2001.

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