National Press Club

Political Reporters Defend Election Coverage from Charges of Bias

November 14, 2008 | By Gil Klein

CLEVELAND – Barack Obama may have gotten more favorable media coverage during the presidential campaign, but it was not because news reporters are biased, leading Cleveland political reporters told an NPC forum Wednesday.

Tom Beres, senior political reporter for WKYC-TV3, said Obama ran such a different and such an effective campaign that describing it objectively made it sound like the reporter was biased toward the Democratic candidate.

“It was hard to do a story that someone watching it wouldn’t say that the reporter must be leaning pretty heavily toward Obama,” Beres said. “Very often, with the Republican Party and the McCain campaign, you got lost in a quagmire of conflicting or non-answers. Some of what may have come across as bias was ineptitude or lack of organization of the (McCain) campaign.”

Beres was speaking at one of the Club’s forums on “The First Amendment, Freedom of the Press and the Future of Journalism” the Club is holding around the country to mark its 100th anniversary.

In Cleveland, the forum was sponsored by the city’s Society of Professional Journalists. Coming just days after the presidential campaign, this forum focused on how the news media fared in covering politics in one of the most important swing states.

Richard Perloff, director of the School of Communication at Cleveland State University, noted a study done by Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism that said 36 percent of the stories about Obama were clearly positive while 14 percent of the stories about John McCain were.

Ben Keeler, a conservative Ohio political blogger, said that was proof enough that the news media was biased toward the Democrat.

“If you do the math, that’s 250 percent more positive coverage toward Obama than it was for McCain from the end of the conventions to the final debate,” Keller said. “That strikes me as the definition of bias.”

Mark Naymik, a political columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, said Obama got more coverage because he was something new. By the same token, he said, Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, got much more coverage right after the conventions than Democratic VP pick Joe Biden because she was something new.

But reporters cannot ignore the facts, even if it looks like they are skewing the stories toward one candidate or another, he said. In a story the Plain Dealer did comparing the work of the Democrats in organizing the election in Ohio compared to Republicans, he said, the evidence was so overwhelmingly in favor of the Democrats that the paper feared it would look like biased reporting.

“Are we supposed to make up this fake fairness?” Naymik asked. “That itself creates a bias because the reality was McCain didn’t have something equal to Obama.”

Perloff said horserace reporting in a political campaign often comes out looking like bias. The same was true in 1980 when liberals complained that the press gave an advantage to Republican Ronald Reagan over President Carter, he said.

“The press covers the winner,” he said. “And then the press covers the reaction to the winner, then the press covers the reaction to the reaction. Unfortunately, what happens is when you are ahead, it really starts to redound in your favor.”

The next forums will be Nov. 17 in Minneapolis, Minn., and Nov. 18 in San Diego, Calif.