Within the first five months of the presidential contest, the media effectively had reduced the field to five candidates, even though there were 17 mainstream Democrats and Republicans, a study of political coverage found.
But the tone of the coverage for the top two front-runners - Democratand Republican - hardly was friendly. Nearly four out of 10 stories were negative, more than three out of 10 were neutral and only the rest were positive.
The study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, to be released Monday, also portrays the political press as a hidebound institution out of touch with the desires of citizens.
Among the findings:
The report is the most thorough analysis yet of media coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign and offers both a sober evaluation as well as a dash of guidance on how to improve. But the report's authors are not necessarily optimistic. They note that a study of the 2000 presidential election reached similar conclusions.
They argue that this election could represent a generational struggle in both parties, but that early media coverage failed to capture that fundamental tension.
"If American politics is changing," the report concluded, "the style and approach of the American press does not appear to be changing with it."
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said journalists face a conundrum: In a campaign that started as early as this one, why spend resources in a detailed analysis of candidates views and stances when the public is not that engaged? Or is the public not engaged because the media are focusing on tactics and insider stories that don't affect readers, viewers and listeners?
The report analyzed 1,742 articles about the presidential contest that appeared from January through May in 48 news outlets including print, online, network TV, cable and radio news and talk shows.