Spotlight Exclusives

A New Study on the Political Media, by Tom Freedman and John Bridgeland

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A common topic among those concerned about issues of poverty in America is the lack of coverage of the subject in the media and in political campaigns.

To test whether this campaign season saw a change in coverage of the subject, we conducted a study that measured the prevalence of poverty in political media from 2003 through 2008. The findings are in: print media coverage of poverty in political news stories increased in the run-up to the election. Comparing 2003 to 2005, coverage increased, and it also increased between the presidential election years of 2004 and 2008.

Over the last four years, from 2005 through 2008, coverage of the subject in political coverage increased every year.

We conducted the study by reviewing all stories in all papers available in Lexis-Nexis that mentioned key search terms. Among the terms we searched were “poverty, “politics” “candidate,” and “presidential.” To look for what variables drove the coverage, we also looked at “John Edwards” and other issues that might be factors, like “recession,” “financial crisis,” and “subprime,” and compared how often those terms appeared in stories about poverty.To read the study click here.

Among the key findings of the study:

• 2008 coverage of poverty as a topic in articles concerning the presidential campaigns was more than double that of 2004.

• The key drivers of the coverage in 2008 include John Edwards and the economy, but these were responsible for less than half the stories overall (44.8%).

• Both 2007 and 2008 were high points for coverage of poverty as an issue in politics.

The upward trend looks to continue. In 2004, 1,013 news stories about poverty in the presidential campaign appeared in all U.S. newspapers and wires. Through the first ten months of this year, that number has already exploded to 2,565 news stories.

Overall, coverage of poverty in politics increased 369 percent since 2003.

Some would argue that 2008 has featured circumstances unusually conducive to coverage of poverty. John Edwards, who campaigned on a platform that prominently featured poverty, remained in the presidential race until late January of this year. The crumbling economy has also contributed to political coverage of poverty, as candidates strove to assure struggling and anxious voters that they could return prosperity to America.

Our study shows that while these factors certainly garnered some of the political news stories about poverty, those articles that did not reference Edwards or the financial crisis still accounted for the majority of the coverage.

This study suggests that poverty has become a relatively more discussed issue in politics. Even in non-election years, the number of political news stories about poverty has consistently risen. When news outlets write about presidential campaigns, they discuss poverty more frequently than ever before.

The very bad news about the economy unfortunately makes poverty an increasingly relevant issue to more and more Americans. Advocates for more action on the subject need to recognize the trend of increased attention; now is the time to work for solutions to the serious challenges we face.

Too often, poverty is considered a second- or even third-tier political issue that media and candidates rarely focused on. That seems to be changing somewhat, and now is a good time for those concerned about the issues to offer solutions and seek attention for this humanitarian and public policy challenge.

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