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Study: Recall news coverage focused primarily on Schwarzenegger

| 15 October 2003


Recognize these faces? The New York Times devoted equal amounts of pre-election coverage to them both.

California governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger benefited from lopsided media attention during the pivotal first weeks of his campaign, according to a study by a policy-research center based on the Berkeley and Stanford University campuses.

The study examined more than 1,500 news stories written by staff writers for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and San Jose Mercury News that appeared between the week of Aug. 6, when major candidates entered the race, and Oct. 6, the Monday before election day. It found that just under three-quarters of the stories focused on candidate Schwarzenegger as their subject.

“Californians were bombarded with messages about Schwarzenegger’s candidacy, cast in a positive or negative light, for most of the campaign,” says Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor who headed the study. “Soon thereafter, his support rose from 20 percent to over 40 percent of those polled.”

The media review analyzed total story counts, the percentage of reporting on the six major candidates, weekly trends in candidate coverage, and the coverage of policy issues such as the state budget, education, and child health insurance.

The analysis was conducted by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an independent policy research center based at Berkeley and Stanford. Fuller, a professor of education and public policy as well as a sociologist, is the director of PACE.

The New York Times reported on Schwarzenegger in 87 percent of its 164 stories appearing over the frenzied two-month campaign to unseat Democratic incumbent Gov. Gray Davis. The actor’s wife, Maria Shriver, was discussed with about the same frequency as Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, Fuller says.

Bustamante not well covered by many papers
The study also found that Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, was largely eclipsed by the disproportionate coverage of the actor, as well as by reporting on Davis during the final two weeks of the race. The Los Angeles Times offered more balanced reporting on the major candidates, according to Fuller, For example, 61 percent of the paper’s articles informed readers about Bustamante, compared to 44 percent of the stories appearing in The New York Times. The San Jose Mercury News covered legislative activity in Sacramento dealing with such issues as expanding child health insurance, granting new civil rights to gays, and permitting immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. This yielded more coverage for Davis and relatively less for Schwarzenegger.

Slight coverage of education, budget issues
Noting that schools and colleges make up about 60 percent of all state spending in California, Fuller said the study also explored election coverage relating to policy issues. The study found the Los Angeles Times discussing state budget issues in 9 percent of its 443 news articles, and The New York Times reporting on education issues in 8 percent of its 164 stories.

“The Los Angeles Times really pushed the candidates to articulate policy positions through question-and-answer sessions and by challenging them when claims about the budget or school reform could not be substantiated,” Fuller said.

“Overall, however, editors came to focus on Schwarzenegger’s personal history and character, with comparatively little attention to how candidates would tackle public problems that affect the lives of Californians,” he said.

Schwarzenegger’s press attention started off with a bang when he announced his candidacy on Aug. 6, and it far exceeded coverage of the other contenders in the campaign’s initial weeks. Three times as many stories appeared in The New York Times in which Schwarzenegger was the main subject of discussion, compared to Bustamante’s coverage, even though the lieutenant governor was ahead of the actor in polling during the first month of the campaign, the study found.

Lesser-known candidates, including Camejo and Independent Arianna Huffington, received proportionally less coverage.

The California daily newspapers surveyed offered more balanced coverage compared to the national press until the final week, when the election was defined as Davis against Schwarzenegger, Fuller said.

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