I was linked to this article, “Obama talks religion at forum,” from my Google News homepage. The story, with its one-sided headline, is featured at MSNBC’s “First Read,” which is apparently the place for “key political news and analysis.”
Reading both the headline and the lede, you’d think yesterday’s forum was all about Obama. The lede:
Obama talked about Iraq, abortion, the Supreme Court, and his greatest moral failure during an hour-long televised talk on faith and politics with pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren here at Saddleback Church.
The next paragraph begins: “McCain also attended the event, but he spoke with Warren separately.”
It turns out that MSNBC has split coverage on its website – one article focusing on Obama and one focusing on McCain (without, of course, linking them to each other). The result is some pretty one-sided coverage. Despite the fact that the two candidates were asked identical questions, MSNBC pretty much stuck with its “McCain also attended” theme in both stories, didn’t dedicate equal copy space to each story (as if copy space were a limitation on-line), and allowed the coverage (filed by different authors) to basically tell an Obama-centric story.
Consider the headline for the McCain coverage: “And So Does McCain . . .” Not exactly a descriptive search-engine-optimized phrase sure to drive it to the top of the Google News page and bring readers to the post. Now I realize that maybe I’m being picky, so I decided to count lines of copy dedicated to each story (remember, it’s the same event):
“Obama talks religion at forum” 80 lines (67 after deducting necessary background information)
“And So Does McCain . . .” 38 lines
So we’ve got an imbalance in the headlines, an imbalance in the ledes, and an imbalance in copy space. Surely, one might think, they will make up for this with balanced coverage in the body of the story, from how it’s framed and described to how that inverted journalist’s pyramid works (you know, most important facts up top).
The McCain coverage opens in paragraph two with his greatest moral failure (the failure of his first marriage), framed as “interesting” and “notable” by the author, and coupled with a prominently featured quote from McCain, standing alone in paragraph three.
The Obama coverage buries his greatest moral failure (his teen drug use, wrapped up with his obfuscation line about the country’s greatest failure, because why should we let Obama’s failures stand alone) in its third substantive paragraph (that’s 8 paragraphs into the story). That paragraph — unlike the McCain story, which directly quotes McCain’s statement about his moral failure — instead paraphrases Obama’s statements about his drug use, then uses the most favorable quote possible: “‘I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis,’ he said. ‘I know that I don’t walk alone.’”
The coverage goes on, pretty much in similar fashion. Open two web browsers side-by-side and see if you think you’re getting a balanced picture of the forum.
Below is an example of what to look for when you read the two stories. Take note of the use of different framing techniques, different quoting techniques and different adjectives to describe each candidate and their statements:
In the Obama coverage:
An Obama quote is preceded by the reporter’s summation: “he talked about what his faith in Jesus Christ means to him on a daily basis.”
In the McCain coverage:
A quote from McCain is coupled with the reporter’s summation: “Then McCain told a well worn story about his experiences with a Christian Vietnamese prison guard.”