Saturday, June 28, 2008

Study call

On May 30, 2008, The Boston Globe published an op-ed piece by Geraldine Ferraro entitled, “Healing the wounds of Democrats' sexism”. Among other things, Ms. Ferraro asked:

that the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University and others conduct a study, which we will pay for if necessary, to determine three things.

First, whether either the Clinton or Obama campaign engaged in sexism and racism; second, whether the media treated Clinton fairly or unfairly; and third whether certain members of the media crossed an ethical line when they changed the definition of journalist from reporter and commentator to strategist and promoter of a candidate. And if they did to suggest ethical guidelines which the industry might adopt.

I haven’t seen a lot of reaction to this perhaps for understandable reasons. The Democratic campaign is over so such a study may be seen as beating a dead horse. Ferraro has been so thoroughly smeared as racist that it’s possible nothing she says is considered worthy of notice. All those who screamed that the Clinton campaign was playing the race card may feel they don’t need a study to tell them what they already know. Certainly most members of the media believe their coverage was fair and balanced so they have no reason to discuss such a study.

Two people who did react to Ferraro’s call for a study dismissed her request by claiming it had been satisfied by a Pew/Shorenstein study released the day before her op-ed piece appeared.

Marjorie Valbrun at The Root in a post entitled “Just Give It Up, Geraldine!” focused on the fairly or unfairly issue:

What's ironic is that Ferraro, who has accused reporters in general, and black reporters in particular, of reportorial dishonesty and bias in favor of Obama, supports calls for a study by Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein's Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy to determine, among other things, "whether the media treated Clinton fairly or unfairly." A study was recently done answering that very question.

The day before Ferraro's piece appeared in the Globe, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, both respected nonpartisan research organizations, issued a new study of primary news coverage showing that: "Democrat Barack Obama has not enjoyed a better ride in the press than rival Hillary Clinton."

Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic presented a post entitled “Sexism, Sexism, Sexism”. He begins "Geraldine Ferraro has an op-ed today in The Boston Globe. It's rife with twisted arguments."

The only twisted argument he details, however, is Ferraro’s call for a study. Like Valbrun, he then references the Shorenstein Center’s study and goes on to quote some of its conclusions. (This has nothing to do with the title of his post. Ferraro called for a study of sexism - like racism - within the campaigns, not in the media. Presumably Sullivan’s reference to “twisted arguments” means he is dismissing any concerns about sexism.)

Valbrun and Sullivan would have done better to emulate the rest of the world and simply ignore Ferraro. The Shorenstein study they advance as an answer to her concerns is so badly flawed that it cannot reasonably be used for that purpose.

In a June 2 post The Daily Howler finds the study is “opaque, impenetrable” and “makes groaning methodological leaps”. He “[guesses] that this study couldn’t be salvaged.” He then offers four specific caveats (my comments are in parentheses):

1) Only front-page stories are considered; no op-eds. TDH refers to this as “the day when Maureen Dowd gets her walking papers.” (This is such a glaring problem that I’m not entirely sure any other discussion of the study is necessary.)
2) Shifting methodology. (TDH is referring to the changes in methodology from one study to the next. As I’ll explain below, I’m more concerned about the shifting methodology within this study)
3) No examples. (Not a fatal flaw but it would be nice for the readers of the study to see clearly which stories are considered positive and which negative.)
4) Interesting blend of sources; for example, the Washington Post is sampled about as frequently as the Ashtabula, Ohio Star Beacon

The Daily Howler’s biggest problem with this study, though, is that it makes no distinction between unfavorable statements which are true and those which are false. I have to agree: that seems like a big problem if you’re trying to determine whether a candidate got fair coverage. Making a hundred true unfavorable statements could be fair; making one false one is always unfair.

A commenter called “DemD” has a good brief criticism of the Shorenstein study up at Talking Point Memo. He points out that the study identified a limited number of negative “narratives” about Clinton and considered only those narratives when looking for negative coverage. DemD identifies three specific Clinton brouhahas - MLK/JFK, RFK June, and a Chris Matthews’ insult - that would not have been picked up by the study because they don’t fit any of those narratives.

I have a number of additional problems with this study. First, the actual analysis of whether stories were positive or negative was only done for the period from January 1 to March 9. So when the study says that the media was not negative about Clinton, it can only speak to that period. Considering that March 9 was before Obama's "More Perfect Union" speech (March 18) and before the Pennsylvania primary (April 22), I’d say this part of the study ended just as things were getting interesting. (Valbrun was aware of this date range since it is contained in her quotation from the report.)

Also, although the verbiage in the report denies it, the chart about halfway down on the left side on the page headed “Sources of the Assertions” certainly makes it look like the press was far more likely to be a source of positives for Obama than of negatives (35% positive to 19% negative) and vice versa for Clinton although not as dramatically (25% positive to 33% negative).

Although the positive/negative analysis was only done through March 9, the study makes assertions about media coverage through May 4. These assertions rest on an analysis of the content of media stories from January through May 18. Here the study did not determine whether the stories were negative or positive with regard to the candidates; it just counted them up based on what they were about, not how they "slanted". The study finds that "two of the biggest stories of the year have been problems frustrating the Obama camp. This is a much larger percentage of the coverage than anything frustrating either McCain’s or Clinton’s messages." It thus concludes, "Contrary to the idea that Obama’s coverage has been entirely positive, in other words, two of the three biggest story-lines of the year have been negative for him."

However, by far the most frequent negative/frustrating story-line for Obama was described as "Obama's relationship with Rev. Wright". If this category includes discussions of Obama's "More Perfect Union" speech, my guess is that the stories themselves would actually tilt dramatically positive for Senator Obama.

Clearly, then, Ferraro’s call for a study of whether the media treated Senator Clinton fairly or unfairly has not been answered by the Shorenstein study and remains on the table. So, too, do her calls to study whether either campaign engaged in sexism and racism and to study whether some members of the media moved from spectators to cheerleaders and coaches. How could such studies be done effectively?

I’m not sure how a truly quantitative study of the sexism and racism in the campaigns could be done. It seems to me that unless the offense is egregious the judgment of what constitutes sexism and racism may be too subjective to be studied in a manner everyone can agree is dispassionate. And one woman’s egregious may be another man’s “get over it”.

The topic of media cheer leading may be more susceptible to quantitative analysis. The Public Editor at The New York Times has provided a rough idea of what such analysis might look like in his June 22 column about Maureen Dowd’s treatment of Hillary Clinton. Much of his review is subjective and he is careful to balance his concerns with opposing viewpoints but he does offer one eye-popping metric: 28 of Dowd’s last 44 columns are categorized as “gender-laden assault[s]” on Clinton. Although this measures boo leading rather than cheer leading, similar simple counts of other perceived line-crossers could prove instructive.

As for a study of whether Clinton was treated fairly or unfairly by the media, perhaps that could take some pointers from how the Public Editor scrutinized Dowd. Rather than run cursory reviews of a wide range of media organizations, a more effective study might identify 2 or 3 pack leaders in various categories: newspapers; network television; cable television; even Internet sites. A more detailed analysis could then be done of that smaller group beginning again with simple counts that classify articles (including op-eds, news segments, and so on) as either favorable or unfavorable to Clinton. Having each article categorized by more than one reviewer seems wise as does some attempt to determine if the article is reporting fact or fiction.

Will any of these studies happen? I doubt it. And even if unflawed studies are designed and carried out, they may not really change very many perceptions of what happened anyhow. A good study could probably convince most people either way on the question of media cheer leading. A good study has less chance of resolving the question of media fairness towards Clinton: odds are that most of the pro-Clinton contingent will always see media unfairness and most of the anti-Clinton contingent never will.

And I can’t imagine a study that could resolve the question of whether the campaigns engaged in racism and sexism. The Clinton contingent (and some Obama-supporting women) will always see sexism from the Obama side while most Obama supporters will be - or claim to be - convinced it never happened. Many on the Obama side will always see the Clinton campaign as playing the race card while most Clinton supporters will deny it. Racism and sexism will simply remain a matter of perception.

Afterword: I finished writing this post before Obama’s accusation that the Republicans would use race as an issue in the campaign. Given that charge, it behooves us all to remember that the race card is available to both candidates. For an excellent consideration of the ethical and political fallout from Obama’s approach, take a few minutes to listen to Scott Simon’s ”Reflections on Race and the Presidential Election”.

I’m particularly intrigued by this statement:

The results of this year’s primaries and today’s public opinion polls might suggest it is politically more injurious to insinuate someone is a bigot than it is to make an issue of their race.

If I read that correctly, he’s saying the Republicans would do far less damage to Obama by emphasizing his race than the Democrats can do to McCain by accusing him of bigotry. That is as it should be - provided, of course, that the charge of bigotry is true.

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