Pew Study: 2012 Campaign Coverage Overwhelmingly Negative For Both Sides

Benjy Sarlin
Pew Study: 2012 Campaign Coverage Overwhelmingly Negative For Both Sides

Supporters of President Obama or Mitt Romney who complain that the media is hard on their candidate are correct, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

Both Obama and Romney received overwhelmingly negative treatment in the press over the general election, according to Pew. From Aug. 27 to Oct. 21, a period that encompassed both conventions and three out of four debates, just 19 percent of stories about Obama were "favorable" in tone versus 30 percent that were "unfavorable. For Romney the ratio was 15 percent favorable to 38 percent unfavorable.

The gap between those numbers is largely accounted for by Obama's relative frontrunner status for much of the observed period. For stories that didn't concern the horse race aspect of the campaign, the two received near identical (if still negative) coverage: 15 percent positive to 32 percent negative for Obama verus 14 percent positive and 32 percent negative for Romney.

The balance was not consistent throughout, however. As one might expect, Romney faced much tougher coverage in September, when he was slipping in the polls and battling through media firestorms over a secret fundraiser video and his response to the attack on the American consultate in Benghazi. Obama encountered the same dynamic in October, where his disastrous performance in his first debate at the start of the month triggered an avalanche of negative press.

Nor were negative and positive stories evenly distributed through the mainstream press. On MSNBC, 3 percent of Romney stories were positive versus 71 percent that were negative. On FOX News, 6 percent of Obama stories were positive and 46 percent were negative.

"If there is a tendency in press coverage it's to echo the polls--and this year mostly that has been to the detriment of the candidate losing ground," Tom Rosenstiel, director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said in a statement.

Compared to social media like Facebook and Twitter, though, much of the news was outright friendly. Statements about Obama on Twitter were negative by a 2-1 margin and 4-1 margin for Romney. "Every week studied on Twitter was as negative as the worst week each candidate had in the mainstream press," the study concluded.

The study of mainstream media analyzed 2,457 stories from 49 outlets, including the three broadcast networks, the three major cable news networks, the 12 most popular news websites, 11 newspaper front pages, PBS, NPR, ABC radio, and CBS radio. The social media analysis included Twitter, Facebook, and several million blogs.