When stories did convey one of the narrative themes about the candidates, what was the evidence cited?

The answer reveals the extent to which political reporting today is a game of interpretation as much as one of verification.

Stories were nearly as likely to offer no evidence for these interpretative themes about the candidates as they were to cite something concrete-be it public record, policy, recent candidate statements or the like.

Evidence for the Themes
Type of Evidence Percent
Public Record/Management
Outside Statement
Tactics/Personal Behavior

In all, 44% of the time reporters cited no evidence. In other words, the journalist just took it upon himself or herself to assert this.

When evidence of some kind was cited, most often (42%) it was public record, recent candidate statements, policy positions or the candidate's management style. Another 9% of the time it was merely journalists quoting someone asserting this, either a poll or campaign surrogate or an attack by an opponent. The other five percent of assertions were based either on campaign tactics and fundraising or personal behavior of the candidate.

These breakdowns, however, varied, depending on the theme.

The theme most likely to be put forth with no evidence whatsoever was Bush as a strong and decisive leader. More than half, 57%, of those assertions (again mostly put forth by Bush campaign surrogates) offered no evidence. Just 26% used some hard evidence tied to Bush's record or management style.

The Kerry campaign offered more evidence in pushing the image of Kerry as a tough guy, but that evidence was not necessarily tied to his public record. Instead it was a mix of public record and management style (31% combined), statements by past personal friends (12%) and his ad strategy or other campaign tactics (10%).

The negative messages, in general, were more grounded in hard evidence of public record. Half of all references to Kerry as very liberal linked to his public record (keep in mind, though, that some references to public record, especially in the opponent's ad campaigns can be disputed).

That was true of 42% of the assertions about Kerry's problem of changing his decision, 45% of the claims that Bush's credibility is in question and 46% of the claims that Bush is arrogant.

What elements of each candidate's record were used as evidence? The scope was relatively narrow. Terrorism preparedness and war in Iraq (not surprisingly) were the primary focus of Bush's record, together accounting for roughly seven-in-ten references to his public record. And when it came to Kerry, the focus was on past tax votes and his remarks on gas pricing, 41% of all evidences of public record. The others were a mix of Vietnam experience, his vote on the support for the war with Iraq, his defense record and others.