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Coverage of government drops dramatically

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 24, 2003

WASHINGTON - News coverage of the federal government fell dramatically in the last 20 years and has become overwhelmingly negative, according to a new study.

Stories about the federal government declined by nearly 30 percent from 1981 to 2001, despite a surge in coverage after the Sept. 11 attacks, the study found. Two-thirds of the stories had negative portrayals of government.

The study was conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an independent research group, for the Council for Excellence in Government, a nonpartisan think tank. Researchers analyzed the content of nearly 30,000 stories broadcast or published in 1981, 1993 and 2001. They chose those years because they were the first in a new presidency.

Researchers S. Robert Lichter and Stephen Farnsworth analyzed front-page coverage in four regional newspapers - the St. Petersburg Times, San Jose Mercury News, Des Moines Register and Austin American-Statesman - and in the New York Times and Washington Post. They also watched newscasts on NBC, ABC and CBS.

The researchers confirmed previous studies that showed a Democratic tilt to news coverage, especially in the regional papers. In the St. Petersburg Times, for example, President Clinton got more favorable coverage in 1993 (45 percent of stories) than Ronald Reagan got in 1981 (28 percent) and George W. Bush got in 2001 (36 percent).

"The battle over partisan news bias usually focuses on the national media," the report said. "Yet our study found the sharpest tilt in local newspapers."

The study also found a decline in the use of unnamed sources. Calling it a "welcome trend," the study said that in all the outlets studied, one in every four sources was unnamed in 1981 but fell to one out of six in 2001.

Copies of the study, titled Government: In and Out of the News, can be found at http://www.excelgov.org

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