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Bad Impression: Did the Media Take Swipes at Sarah Palin?

First impressions count a lot. The media coverage last week introduced the Republican and, to a much lesser extent, the Democratic vice presidential nominees to the American people. The coverage not only tells us something about how people will view the candidates, it also tells us something about the media and the parties themselves.

Obviously, the media's coverage may reflect just the information it is given, not necessarily bias. Negative coverage of a candidate may mean either that there are some real problems with the candidate or that the other party is raising concerns that the media is merely passing on to their readers. A CNN headline conveys this point quite well as some Democrats came out immediately on Friday morning saying that "Palin could be a 'disaster.'" Also on Friday, Barack Obama "backed away" within hours from a campaign statement that Politico described as "ripping" into Palin.

By contrast, the ad the Republicans released immediately after Joe Biden's nomination took a different tack. It pointed to statements Biden had made disparaging Obama during the primaries and extolling the virtues of John McCain.

The announcements of both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin spawned massive amounts of news coverage. A simple Google News search shows that there were 26,572 stories the Saturday that Obama told the country that Biden was his vice presidential pick. McCain's pick of Palin generated 11,293 stories.

What is interesting is the theme of these stories. For vice presidential nominees, I searched a whole range of terms to see how the media described the nominees: experience, abortion, conservative, moderate, liberal, safe, risky, etc., using Google News searches. (Lexis-Nexis yielded roughly similar relative rankings.)

For Biden, the top ten terms found were: experience (excluding "executive experience") (69 percent), abortion (21 percent), liberal (11 percent), safe (7 percent), long-winded (5 percent), moderate (5 percent), plagiarism (3 percent), gun-control (2 percent), executive experience (2 percent), and exaggerate or exaggerated (dealing with exaggerated claims he made about his college grades and accomplishments that helped end his 1988 race) (1 percent).

For Palin, the top ten were: conservative (49 percent), abortion (44 percent), brother-in-law (picking up claims that she improperly tried to get her ex-brother-in-law fired) (17 percent), corruption and oil (17 percent), risky or risks or risk (16 percent), glass ceiling (13 percent), Quayle (10 percent), exciting (9 percent), inexperience or "lack experience" OR "limited experience" (8 percent), and bold (8 percent).

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does point to some significant differences in coverage. While 49 percent of the articles mention that Palin is a conservative, only 11 percent of the pieces on Biden use liberal, just twice as many of the articles that label him moderate. There is no doubt that Palin is a conservative, but Biden's legislative record should likewise put him squarely in the liberal category and it would seem to be just as important in describing who Biden is to voters.

The National Journal, a respected bipartisan publication, regularly examines the voting records of all members of congress, and it found that Biden was the third most liberal member of the Senate in 2007, even more liberal than self-described "socialist" Bernie Sanders from Vermont. Indeed, with Obama's No. 1 ranking, the Democratic ticket appears to be the most liberal presidential ticket ever.

With 69 percent of Biden's stories mentioning "experience" and excluding "executive experience," it clearly tops his list. News stories mentioning his experience appear consistently positive and focus on his 36 years in the Senate. Only 2 percent of the stories mention his lack of executive experience.

Negative terms were used far more frequently to describe Palin than Biden. For example, Biden was forced to exit the 1988 presidential race because he was involved in plagiarism and exaggerated his college record, but few articles mentioned those issues — only 3 and 1 percent respectively.

By contrast, Palin's nomination was more than twice as likely to be described as risky than as "bold." Terms associated with negative claims about Palin were far more likely to get mentioned. The third most frequently used term involved an ethics charge against Palin that she fired the state public safety commissioner because he wouldn't fire Palin's former brother-in-law. Some 90 percent of these stories failed to mention that the brother-in-law was in trouble for threatening to kill people.

Palin was compared to Dan Quayle at about 3 times the rate that Biden's plagiarism issues were raised. With a historic nomination of a woman and one with a better chance of winning than Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, surprisingly about the same share of articles mentioned the "glass ceiling" or "exciting" or "bold" as "Dan Quayle."

On the positive side, about 5 percent of the stories mentioned Palin's "executive experience" and nearly 17 percent mention "corruption" and "oil," discussing her attempts to fight corruption in Alaska's government.

While abortion is the No. 2 term mentioned for both candidates, it is mentioned twice as frequently for Palin. If the issue is important for evaluating Palin, why isn't it equally important for Biden?

One day's media coverage hardly makes a whole campaign, and it would be interesting to see if these patterns continue, but first impressions do matter. Whatever the reasons, initial media coverage of Sarah Palin was significantly less positive than the coverage for Joe Biden.

John Lott is the author of "Freedomnomics" and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.

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