By Stephen Winzenburg

Associate Professor of Communication

The Des Moines Register has long been criticized for its perceived news bias. Since editorial writers and local columnists regularly endorse Democratic candidates, the newspaper has a reputation for being liberal when it comes to political coverage. This week it clearly endorsed Al Gore for president and many question whether the Register’s news stories are used to promote the endorsed candidate. Editor Dennis Ryerson noted in an October 28 column, "I’ve heard much criticism during this presidential season," though he claims he gets it from both sides.

On September 4, the Register’s front-page campaign headline proclaimed, "With Labor Day, real campaigns begin." So using that as my starting point I have been analyzing the Register’s coverage of the presidential election by measuring the number of inches of news space each candidate is given, comparing photographs and headlines, and reviewing the editorial/opinion pages.

Over the past two months Gore has definitely received more coverage in the Register. Of all the news stories regarding the presidential race, 26% had Gore as the main subject, 21% featured George W. Bush and around half focused on both candidates. Gore’s advantage came from being in Iowa almost twice as much as Bush, benefiting most dramatically from one event: his September 28th Des Moines trip where he met elderly can collector Winifred Skinner. That story alone netted Gore four days of coverage in the paper, including a large front page photo of his arms comforting the gray-haired 79-year-old. If it were not for that story and his extra trips to Iowa, Bush and Gore would have received about the same amount of news space in the Register.


The headlines used on the stories may be another reason many readers consider the Register’s political coverage to be biased. Although half of the headlines were neutral, Gore was given over two-thirds of the positive headlines while Bush received a majority of the negative headlines. Those featuring Bush included words such as "attacks," "dodges," "battles," and "fears," while Gore had more positive headlines with words such as "growth," "helps," "support," and "comforts." The full page October 29 profile of Gore bore the title "Great Expectations," while the full page October 22 profile of Bush was entitled "Late Bloomer."

The two major candidates received equal amounts of space on the editorial/opinion pages. Though both had the same amount of negative columns and letters, Gore received three times more positive editorial and opinion pieces than did Bush. The Register’s opinion pages may have left the impression that Gore had many more supporters than detractors, while feelings about Bush were mixed at best.

The candidates for vice president were rarely covered by the Register. Republican Dick Cheney received less than 3% of the space devoted to the overall campaign and his editorial page coverage was over two-thirds negative. Democrat Joseph Lieberman received slightly more news and editorial coverage with about two-thirds of it positive. Third party presidential candidates Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader each received less than 5% of the space, though Nader was given front page coverage several times.

The same number of photographs were used for Gore and Bush, but pictures involving the vice president took up much more of the page. Gore’s advantage could be attributed having more Iowa visits and to Winifred Skinner (whose photo appeared no less than five times, three of which were on the front page!) Gore also scored the biggest photo of the last two months, taken on a platform in Cedar Rapids behind pumpkins that spelled "I-O-W-A."

I came to the conclusion that the Register favored Gore in all areas, especially in headlines and the editorial page. A case could be made that the newspaper attempted to give Bush equal treatment in news stories and photography, but Gore ended up with more coverage because he spent more time in Iowa and used the elderly Des Moines pop can collector to promote his prescription drug plan. If Winifred Skinner would have taken her stand in Ohio, or if Bush would have spent a couple more days campaigning in Iowa, the Register’s news coverage may have been equal for both candidates.





September 4 to November 1 space in column inches



GORE 724 447 442

BUSH 592 453 311

GORE & BUSH 1329 333 93

NADER 143 60 48

BUCHANAN 78 24 14

OTHERS 8 8 0