STUDY: PBS Remains Gold Standard For Coverage Of Campaign Finance Reform

Six Years After Citizens United, Coverage Of Campaign Finance Reform Has Room For Improvement

››› ››› JULIE ALDERMAN

On the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC, PBS remains the gold standard for coverage of campaign finance reform while other broadcast networks show room for improvement, according to a Media Matters review of their evening and Sunday news shows over the past 16 months. While coverage of the subject has increased across the board, with CBS in particular showing a substantial increase, a sizable fraction of the increase is due to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) raising the issue in interviews on Sunday programs, rather than proactive efforts by journalists to cover campaign finance reform.

Six Years Ago, The Supreme Court Rejected Limits On Campaign Spending By Corporations

January 21, 2010: The Supreme Court Rejected "Restrictions On The Role Of Corporations In Political Campaigns." As explained by The Washington Post, the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC on January 21, 2010 concluded "that corporations have the same rights as individuals when it comes to political speech," allowing corporations to "us[e] their profits to endorse or oppose political candidates":

A divided Supreme Court on Thursday swept aside decades of legislative restrictions on the role of corporations in political campaigns, ruling that companies can dip into their treasuries to spend as much as they want to support or oppose individual candidates.

[...]

In a 5 to 4 decision, the majority cast its ruling as a spirited defense of the First Amendment, concluding that corporations have the same rights as individuals when it comes to political speech. Corporations had been banned since 1947 from using their profits to endorse or oppose political candidates, a restriction that the justices ruled unconstitutional.

"When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought," the court said in a decision written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. "This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves." [The Washington Post, 1/22/10]

Over The Past 16 Months, PBS And CBS Aired The Most Coverage Of Campaign Finance Reform

CBS And PBS Led Networks In Time Spent Covering Campaign Finance Reform. According to Media Matters' analysis, CBS and PBS spent substantially more time discussing campaign finance reform than ABC and NBC between September 15, 2014, and January 15, 2016. PBS aired 21 segments on PBS NewsHour that referenced the subject, totaling nearly three hours. CBS aired 26 segments referencing the issue on CBS Evening News and Face the Nation, totaling just over 2 hours and 20 minutes.

ABC And NBC Lagged In Coverage Of Campaign Finance Reform. Over the same time period, NBC aired 15 segments referencing campaign finance reform on Nightly News and Meet the Press, totaling just under an hour of time. ABC aired 25 segments on World News and This Week, totaling just over an hour and a half.

Time

Segments

On Sunday Morning Talk Shows, Face the Nation Outpaced This Week And Meet The Press' Coverage Of Campaign Finance Reform

Face The Nation Spent More Time Covering Campaign Finance Reform Than This Week And Meet The Press. Of the Sunday morning talk shows, CBS' Face the Nation had the most coverage of campaign finance reform, with 14 segments mentioning the topic totaling more than 2 hours. ABC's This Week aired the most segments mentioning the topic, with 15, but those segments totaled less time -- with just over 1 hour and 20 minutes. NBC's Meet the Press referenced campaign finance reform in only seven segments that totaled just over 42 minutes.

Segments

Time

Sunday Show Coverage Of Campaign Finance Reform Heavily Influenced By Bernie Sanders

Segments Where Bernie Sanders Brought Up Campaign Finance Reform Unprompted Account For Sizable Fraction Of Sunday Show Coverage. Over the past 16 months, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) appeared in 10 Sunday show segments that referenced campaign finance reform. Sanders brought the topic up unprompted on several occasions -- those appearances, which were included in their entirety in our data set, comprise more than 73 minutes of campaign finance reform coverage on ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press. Sanders' appearances on Meet the Press actually accounted for more than half of the program's campaign finance reform coverage coded during the survey period.

Network Evening News Segments Referencing Campaign Finance Reform Totaled Less Than One Hour Over 16 Months

ABC, CBS, And NBC Evening News Programs Spent Less Than An Hour Combined Covering Campaign Finance Reform. From September 15, 2014 to January 15, 2016, ABC's World News segments that mentioned campaign finance reform issues totaled 12 minutes and 16 seconds, CBS Evening News segments totaled 21 minutes and 20 seconds, and NBC's Nightly News segments totaled 14 minutes and 46 seconds. Altogether, the network nightly news spent just over 48 minutes of coverage on segments referencing campaign finance reform across 16 months.

Time

Network Coverage Has Increased Since Previous Study, But PBS NewsHour's Coverage Still Reliably Outpaced Other Programs

PBS NewsHour Continues To Outpace Other Network Coverage Of Campaign Finance Reform. According to a September 2014 Media Matters analysis of broadcast and Sunday show coverage since February 2013, PBS NewsHour broadcast 16 segments on campaign finance reform for a total of almost one hour and 14 minutes of coverage -- more than all the other networks combined. CBS dedicated just over 17 minutes of total coverage across seven segments to campaign finance reform, NBC covered the topic for a total of 17 minutes and 36 seconds over five segments, and ABC covered it for a total of 12 minutes and 33 seconds over six segments. While the other networks have shown increases in the current study, a sizable fraction of the increase is driven by Sanders' interviews, and PBS NewsHour continued to reliably outpace other broadcast network news programs in covering campaign finance reform. [Media Matters, 9/18/14]

Methodology

This report analyzed coverage of campaign finance reform on Sunday morning talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press) and four nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour). Our analysis includes any segment that mentioned the campaign finance reform aspects of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC or McCutcheon v. FEC ("Citizens United" and "McCutcheon") between September 15, 2014 and January 15, 2016, a time period that reflects the time since Media Matters' last published study on this topic.

Transcripts from Nexis as well as Media Matters were used to analyze these segments. A Nexis search was conducted for mentions of "McCutcheon", "Citizens United", or "campaign finance" on This Week, Meet the Press, Face the Nation, CBS Evening News, ABC's World News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour. The time for each segment was determined using IQ Media.

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