Summary of Findings

Amid an increasingly divisive presidential campaign, voters largely agree in their positive assessments of news coverage of the first presidential debate. Solid majorities of certain Bush voters (55%), certain Kerry supporters (62%), and swing voters (60%) rate the coverage of the debate as good or excellent.

Voters also generally think that the coverage has focused more on the personal qualities of the candidates, rather than on their issue positions. Nearly identical majorities of Bush (58%) and Kerry voters (57%) believe the news coverage of the debate paid more attention to the personal qualities of the candidates rather than to their policy plans. However, even those voters who see the debate coverage as emphasizing the candidates’ personalities give the media mostly positive ratings for its coverage of the debates.

Where differences emerge is in voter opinions on whether the news coverage treated both candidates equally, or was more favorable to either Bush or Kerry. Nearly half of Bush voters (47%) believe that news coverage of the debate was more favorable to Kerry, compared with 43% who say it treated both candidates equally. By contrast, most Kerry voters (60%) ­ and about as many swing voters (58%) ­ think both candidates were treated equally.

The latest Pew Research Center national survey, conducted among 1,002 registered voters in the three nights following the Sept. 30 debate, finds that the choice of news sources continues to be associated with voters’ political preferences. Roughly three-in-ten committed Bush voters (29%) cite Fox News as their main source of debate news. That is three times the number of certain Kerry voters who cite Fox News as their main source of information about the debate. CNN is the top debate news source among Kerry voters (21%), followed by ABC News (16%).

Politicization of Election News Audiences

Pew’s biennial survey of news consumption found increasing politicization in the public’s overall news choices (See “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” June 8, 2004). And this is carrying over into major differences in the voting intentions of the election news audience.

In mid-September (Sept. 8-13), a pair of Pew surveys showed President Bush with an overall lead of 50%-42% among all registered voters. But among voters who get most of their election news from cable news outlets, Bush led by 59%-34%, while Kerry held a ten-point advantage among those who get most of their election news from network outlets (52%-42%).

The differences are more dramatic among the audiences for individual news sources. As Pew Research Center surveys have shown, the news audience for Fox News Channel has become increasingly conservative and Republican over the past four years. In the mid-September surveys, voters who said they get most of their election news from Fox supported Bush by more than four-to-one (76% Bush, 18% Kerry, including 61% who strongly favor Bush).

By contrast, CNN’s audience preferred Kerry by a margin of 53% to 39%. And solid majorities of voters who rely mostly on CBS News (57%) and ABC News (55%) also favored the Massachusetts Democrat.

Those who get most of their election news from local TV favored Bush (51%-39%), and the president holds a commanding advantage among voters who get most of their election news from radio (59%-33%) and the Internet (58%-36%). Voters who rely mostly on newspapers were almost evenly divided in their presidential preference (46% Bush/45% Kerry).

A good deal of the differences in preferences among news audiences reflect the fact that each news source has a particular demographic appeal (for example, women and African Americans make up a relatively large share of the network evening news audience, while the cable news audience has a higher share of young men). Of all the news sources tested, Fox News viewership is most strongly correlated with presidential vote preference, even when age, ethnicity and gender are taken into account. Voters who get most of their election news from Fox decidedly favor reelecting President Bush.