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Bias in election coverage?

Written By: - Date published: 9:57 am, November 27th, 2012 - 44 comments
Categories: election 2011, Media - Tags:

Like everyone else, I find you can get better political analysis from chicken entrails than from Claire Robinson. But it seems she can count and use a ruler and what she discovered is interesting. In last year’s election campaign, the four biggest newspapers featured 138 pictures of Key to 80 of Goff, and Key’s were twice as large on average.

OK, not every picture of a given size is good and equally good – I’m sure Key wasn’t happy with this picture, for example. Robinson tried to account for this by rating pictures on how happy or otherwise the leader looked in each picture, and the picture’s position in the paper.

At the end of the day, getting a picture in the paper is usually a good thing for a wannabe PM, and those basic numbers are pretty telling.

Now, some might whine that this shows the msm is unfair and biased. And they could back that up by pointing to the undeniable preponderance of rightwing premises in the editorials, op-eds, business papers, and reporting of our news outlets.

I say: yes, the msm is part of the establishment and inherently stands for the conserving the status quo but the answer is to use the msm and its weaknesses for you, not treat it as an enemy.


44 comments on “Bias in election coverage?”

  1. shorts 1

    National do PR way better than any of the left leaning parties and manage to manage the media way better to

    You’re right in that the answer is to use the media to your own ends and I’d add to do so in a positive manner, control the dialogue

    now can Labour do so?

    • Tom Gould 1.1

      I guess with Goff and Shearer being undermined by some on their own side, no surprises here.

  2. insider 2

    LAbour made a strategic decision not to promote Goff. You can’t blame the media for following that lead. Why should media have to invent a balance the parties aren’t promoting?

    Robinson’s analysis is pretty shallow if it does not acknowledge the influence of strategy – having co leaders is another example which could on the face result in an imbalance. It would be interesting to see if her ‘leader balance’ is reflected in news coverage of the respective spokespeople in LAbour and National.

    • Lanthanide 2.1

      I’ll repost my reply to you, then:
      “That might explain fewer items of coverage, but the images of Key also tended to be larger than those of Goff. So I don’t think that really jibes as an explanation.”

      • insider 2.1.1

        I suspect the size bias is more in the positioning of the stories. Stories on inner pages,particularly the political ones, tend to run smaller pics. It’s a design issue not a bias one.
        Key I suspect was regularly on the front page of papers partly due to say the teapot issue and partly as PM he had more opportunity to be there on ‘non election’ stories. Was prominent teapot coverage good for him politically?
        Here’s an example


        this was front page with a big picture. According to Claire’s research it would be a sign of positive bias because he is smiling and happy (even though John Banks is there too) but the headline is hugely negative as is the story overall.

        I’m not sure a column cm count is telling the whole story, or is itself in any way balanced. It’s data I suppose, but not much more.

        • karol

          I’m not sure a column cm count is telling the whole story,

          Agree.  Biases can also be seen in the way headlines and the first paragraph are framed, and in the relationship between the most visible elements and the subsequent development of the story further down the page.  Many people, though, only glance at the images and headlines, and maybe the first paragraph. 

          An in-depth analysis needs to attend to the way all those elements operate. 

  3. karol 3

    Eddie: I say: yes, the msm is part of the establishment and inherently stands for the conserving the status quo but the answer is to use the msm and its weaknesses for you, not treat it as an enemy.

    The problem is that the NZ LP seems to try too hard to pander to the MSM with tame, but unimaginative PR and photo ops, in an attempt not to offend.  First they need to decide what they actually stand for, then go hard out in presenting that positively, without pandering to the neoliberal assumptions prevalent in the MSM.

    • Colonial Viper 3.1

      Treating the MSM like it is a major constituency of the Labour Party has brought us to this undemocratic point.

  4. Pete 4

    I would expect the incumbent to have more coverage, even during an election campaign, as the business of government is carried out. I wonder if a similar study can be done for 2008, when there was a clear narrative for a change of government.

    • karol 4.1

      Margie Comrie’s study, which I referred to here, shows that Key got more screen time than Clark in the news on TV3 & TV One during the 2008 election campaign.  Comrie shows, (p284: Table 5), that TV One gave significantly more coverage to the National Party leader getting noticeably more time on TV One, and the Labour leader slightly more time on TV3.


    • ak 4.2

      Correct, Pete. 2007-8 (akshly, 04-08) was far more marked, (Democracy under Attack!) and analysis of poll publication (spec NACT-favourable polls) would show a hugely more glaring bias.

      Both ignored. And the 6 o’clock slot holds a stronger sway anyhoo.

      This looks suspiciously like a “yeah ok but it’s not that bad, see?” exercise that will no doubt be cherry-picked and rolled out by our resident tories henceforth.

      But yep, labour needs to look and learn.

  5. Phil 5

    Good work Dr Robinson. We all knew it was a rigged election. It worked though. It convinced the left that it was a waste of time turning out to vote. So the Keystone Kops get elected by a JK nostril. Hardly a mandate…. but it’s enough for any dictator.

    • tc 5.1

      More inconvenient truths for the right that’ll be put down to a ‘busy govimint’ or ‘labours fault’ if they ever ask shonkey’s crew.

  6. framu 6

    interestingly, none of this even touches the MSM treating the election as a horse race instead of a contest of ideas.

    To me thats the more important aspect. If they hadnt spent several months telling us who was losing in the polls and who they felt would be the winner on the day, we might have had a vastly different result regardless of how many pictures and what size they were

    they could have published a whole edition of smiley pictures of goff – but if they spend the entire time pointing the finger and saying “hes gonna lose” without discussing any policy you can be pretty sure of the result.

    • Populuxe1 6.1

      “interestingly, none of this even touches the MSM treating the election as a horse race instead of a contest of ideas.”
      Probably because the ideas weren’t really all that different. 

      • framu 6.1.1

        well… true enough 🙂

      • karol 6.1.2

        Actually, if the MSM focused more on policies, MPs other than the leaders and the background to these, maybe they would have shown up some real differences between the parties.

        As it was, the strong focus on strategic framing of the election as horserace,  made the election a more superficial contest between personalities.  Key won, while disguising his true agenda. 

        • GregJ

          I provided a link below to Canterbury University’s Dr. Babak Bahador’s “New Zealand Media Coverage of the 2008 Election Study: Final Results” which showed Policy issues coverage (50.4%) barely ahead of non policy issues (49.6%).

          Bahador’s mid-way report on 2011 Election doesn’t have that comparison so it will be interesting to see the Final Results report to see if the balance has got worse or better. However it does show that the “horserace” component of the non-policy section was much stronger than 2008 (44% versus 20%) so assuming the Policy/Non-policy balance stays roughly the same it certainly made the “contest” between personalities a much stronger feature of the 2011 election.

          • karol

            That’s interesting.  Thanks for the link, Greg.  i will read it more closely at a later date.

    • infused 6.2

      Just out of interest, why do they have to?

  7. Populuxe1 7

    Ok, mountain out of molehill. Labour deliberately didn’t promote Goff because he lacks media charisma, and of course Key had more photographs – (1) the teapot business (duh!) and (2) he’s the goddam PM, of course there are going to be other non-election stories for the media to cover. Paranoid much?

  8. infused 8

    Maybe if Goff wasn’t so shit… Everyone turned off to him. Why do you think?

    Why do you think Shearer hasn’t got any air time until recently? Same thing. No one wants to read about a bumbling bafoon.

    • Populuxe1 8.1

      I don’t think Goff was shit – I think he needed a bit of media advice, but had he stayed on until 2013 I think he would have become a compelling leader and grown into his mana.

      • QoT 8.1.1

        He’s had since 1984 to figure out how political leadership works, Pop. If he hadn’t got a clue by 2011 I have no idea how three more years would have helped.

        • Populuxe1

          How exactly? Most leaders Goff has served under have been total spotlight hogs. He’s never had a real chance to make an impact on the public consciousness. 

          • QoT

            If he can’t learn from observation I’m not sure how he made it through primary school, much less got into Parliament.

      • lprent 8.1.2

        The usual problem is to know that you need media advice in the first place. Politicians seldom do until they get burnt.

        • QoT

          Well, he might have figured it out sooner if he read blogs.

          • Populuxe1

            Bloggers tend to have an overly optimistic view of how important blogs are to people who don’t spend their entire lives online.

            • Crimson Nile

              You should relay your observation to some of the MSM commentators, it will make them happy.

            • QoT

              Not my point. My point is that when you’ve got a group of people providing you with their opinions for free, and those opinions turn out to be pretty good assessments of a situation, maybe you (i.e. Shearer in this case) should consider paying attention.

  9. Fortran 9

    Mountain out of a Robinson molehill – not her academic remit though, nothing better to spend taxpayers money on !!
    Labour chose to not put Goff on the promotions – simple.

  10. Raymond A Francis 10

    It would be interesting to do similar research on TV coverage (which is much more influential) and or the election before the last when Miss Clark was PM

  11. Rich 11

    I’d suggest:
    – arrange actions and events that force their way onto the front page. That’s the point of (big) protest marches, the Green’s asset sale CIR, Greenpeace occupying drilling rigs, etc. Nobody really thinks these’ll influence the ruling classes, but they do give the media something to film.

    – avoid buying (and quoting or linking to) newspapers and encourage everyone else to do the same. The NZ papers are in a fairly parlous state – a few more bad years and a big financial crash could see either APN or Fairfax filing for bankruptcy or just giving up in favour of easier ways to make a living.

    – treat the media as the opposition. Latch on any weaknesses or stuff-ups like the Murdoch phone tapping scandal. That’s done a huge amount of damage to the media/government complex in the UK.

  12. NattyM 12

    I remarked on more than one occasion how the MSM was actIng as the John Key PR team. On one occasion when the Labour Party released important policy on the family and children, it had about 4 paltry lines on p2 of the Dom Post. What took up about half the rest of the page? A photo of John Key holding a small child. No story, just another pointless photo op for their poster boy.

  13. History Repeats 13

    The Labour Party’s election communication strategy was based on promoting the party rather than a presidential leader styled campaign run by others. This strategy was well discussed during the election. Goff was invisible in LP promotional material. Remember there were no pics of Goff on LP billboards. Given this the results of this survey shows that the LP strategy worked.

    Whether that strategy was correct is another issue.

  14. unicus 14

    In the six week period prior to the last election virtually every hourly news bulletin on National Radio led with a Key or National Party story .

    This Government has interfered in state owned media at policy and editorial levels to a degree not seen since Muldoons time .

  15. Tanz 15

    Doesn’t the Engineers and Printing Union have control of the press? I’m surprised Key got so much coverage, but he lives for it. Goff did not get a fair go by the right wing Herald.

  16. Tamaki 16

    To blame the media is somewhat nieve. The Labour Party’s strategy was to run a non Presidential style campaign while the other parties all ran this style. I suggest that the LP’s media strategy influence what is run in the press and if their focus is on Team Labour rather than Labour Leader then the Media is likely to reflect that.

    Other party’s spent time setting up events to influence the media, to show their leader,wheras if Labour focus was on a wider team and party message. They didn’t place the same emphsis. Clearly this strategy was a disaster for Labour.

    Infact to illustrate the poor media strategy take a look at this labour ad from the 2011 campaign. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/5870477/Labour-campaign-video-harks-back-to-history . Does this approach connect with the young 18+ generation of today swinging voter looking for a better place to live?

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