Both Candidates Received More Negative than Positive Coverage in Mainstream News, but Social Media Was Even Harsher
From the conventions to the eve of the final presidential debate, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have both received more negative than positive coverage from the news media, though overall Obama has had an edge, according to a new study.
That advantage for Obama, however, disappeared after the debates began in early October and news coverage shifted in Romney’s direction, mirroring the momentum change reflected in many public opinion polls, the study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found.
Overall from August 27 through October 21, 19% of stories about Obama studied in a cross section of mainstream media were clearly favorable in tone while 30% were unfavorable and 51% mixed. This is a differential of 11 percentage points between unfavorable and favorable stories.
For Romney, 15% of the stories studied were favorable, 38% were unfavorable and 47% were mixed-a differential toward negative stories of 23 points.
Most of the advantage in coverage for Obama, however, came in September in the form of highly negative coverage for Romney. This was a period when the GOP nominee was losing ground in the polls, he was criticized for his comments about Libya, and a video surfaced in which he effectively dismissed 47% of the American public.
All that changed almost overnight after the first debate on October 3. From that day through October 21, the coverage in effect reversed. In all, 20% of stories about Romney were favorable, 30% were unfavorable, and 50% were mixed-a differential of 10 points to the negative. For Obama, 13% of stories were favorable, 36% were unfavorable, and 50% were mixed-a differential of 23 points.
Throughout the eight-week period studied, a good deal of the difference in treatment of the two contenders is related to who was perceived to be ahead in the race. When horse-race stories-those focused on strategy, tactics and the polls-are taken out of the analysis, and one looks at those framed around the candidates’ policy ideas, biographies and records, the distinctions in the tone of media coverage between the two nominees vanish.
With horse-race stories removed, 15% of campaign stories about Obama were positive, 32% were negative and 53% were mixed. For Romney it was 14% positive, 32% negative and 55% mixed.
The portrayal of the two candidates this year in the mainstream press stands in marked contrast to what the Project found in 2008 when then Senator Barack Obama was running against Senator John McCain. In that race, Obama’s coverage was almost twice as positive as it has been this year (36% vs. 19%) and more positive than negative overall (36% positive vs. 29% negative that year). McCain’s coverage four years ago, by contrast, was much more negative than Romney’s this year. In 2008, nearly six in 10 stories about McCain were clearly negative in nature (57%), while only 14% were positive.
One other distinction between 2008 and 2012 is how much the narrative has changed with events. There have been three distinct periods in the coverage of Obama and Romney over the eight weeks studied, one of which favored Obama, the second of which favored Romney and a third that was closer with an advantage for the president.
From the conventions until the first debate, a period of improving polls for Obama, Romney suffered his period of the most negative coverage; just 4% of stories about him were positive while 52% were negative. Coverage of Obama during this period was fairly evenly split (20% positive vs. 24% negative). That narrative reversed sharply with the first debate. For the next two weeks, Romney saw the mixed treatment (23% positive vs. 23% negative) while Obama was caught in the critical loop, with 12% positive and 37% negative. After the second debate, coverage returned to its more general pattern, with an edge for Obama.
This treatment in the mainstream media also differs markedly from what the study finds in the newer realms of social media: Twitter, Facebook and blogs. There, the narrative about both men has been relentlessly negative and relatively unmoved by campaign events that have shifted the mainstream narrative-more a barometer of social media user mood than a reflection of candidate action. On Twitter, for instance, the conversation about the campaign has consistently been harsher for Romney than for Obama. On Facebook, the tone improved for Obama in October with the debates, despite the sense that the president had stumbled in the first one. And in the blogosphere, neither candidate has seen a sustained edge in the narrative in the eight weeks studied.
The study also reveals the degree to which the two cable channels that have built themselves around ideological programming, MSNBC and Fox, stand out from other mainstream media outlets. And MSNBC stands out the most. On that channel, 71% of the segments studied about Romney were negative in nature, compared with just 3% that were positive-a ratio of roughly 23-to-1. On Fox, 46% of the segments about Obama were negative, compared with 6% that were positive-a ratio of about 8-to-1 negative. These made them unusual among channels or outlets that identified themselves as news organizations.
The study also found a difference between the three network evening newscasts and the morning shows. Obama also fared better in the evening, Romney in the morning.
An analysis of the coverage of the vice presidential candidates, meanwhile, found that Paul Ryan received roughly a third of the amount of coverage that Sarah Palin did in 2008. But of the two vice presidential candidates this year, Ryan and Joe Biden, Ryan received much more unfavorable coverage-28% unfavorable vs. 16% for Biden.
These are among the findings of the content analysis of 2,457 stories from 49 outlets from August 27, the week of the Republican convention, through October 21, five days after the second presidential debate. For mainstream media, the study included the three broadcast networks, the three major cable news networks, the 12 most popular news websites, 11 newspaper front pages and news programming from PBS and NPR along with radio headlines from ABC and CBS news services. From these outlets, PEJ researchers watched, listened or read every story in the sample and counted each assertion for whether it was positive in nature about a candidate, negative in nature or neutral. For a story to be deemed to have a distinct tone, positive or negative assertions had to outnumber the other by a factor of three to two. Any story in which that was not case was coded as mixed.
For social media, the researchers combined a mix of traditional human coding with technology from the firm Crimson Hexagon. Researchers trained the computer “monitors” to replicate their human coding according to PEJ rules. For Twitter, the sample includes the full “fire hose” of public tweets. For Facebook, the study includes a large sampling of public posts about the campaign. The study included a sample of several million blogs as well.
The study of the tone in news coverage is not an examination of media bias. Rather, it measures the overall impression the public is receiving in media about each candidate, whether the assertion is a quote from a source, a fact presented in the narrative that is determined to be favorable or unfavorable, including poll results, or is part of a journalistic analysis.
Among the findings of the study:
- Horse race coverage is down from 2008. Overall, 38% of the coverage coded during these two months was framed around what is typically called horse-race coverage, stories substantially concerned with the strategy and tactics of the campaign and the question of who was winning. That is down from four years ago, when 53% of the coverage studied during a similar period was focused on the horse race. Coverage of the candidate policy positions comprised the second-largest category of coverage, 22%, similar to 2008. Coverage of voter fraud laws and other political topics that largely did not involve the candidates was tied for the third-largest category at 9%, and was a subject that was almost nonexistent in the narrative four years earlier.
- Debate coverage was more about who won than what candidates said. During the three-week debate period studied, October 4-21, horserace coverage grew, filling nearly half of all the stories about the campaign (47%), the largest of any period in the study. In other words, rather than a window to examine the candidates’ ideas at more length, the debates became a frame about campaign momentum to a greater degree than the rest of the campaign. Coverage of foreign policy during this time, by contrast, fell by roughly half to 7%, as did coverage of the personal topics about the candidates, which fell to 1%.
- The two candidates received similar amounts of coverage. Overall Obama was a significant figure in 69% of the stories studied during the eight weeks, while Romney was a significant figure in 61%.The difference is explained almost entirely by coverage of the Obama presidency. Roughly 9% of all stories studied involved Obama functioning as president outside the realm of the campaign. Four years ago, during a similar period in the campaign, the volume of coverage was evenly balanced between Obama and his Republican rival John McCain, who were each significant newsmakers in 62% of the campaign stories.
- Among the issues, the economy dominated but less so than in 2008. The economy accounted for 10% of all campaign coverage studied, down from 15% four years earlier. It still overshadowed all other policy issues. Turmoil in the Middle East, particularly the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, was next-at 5%. Some subjects were notable for less attention. Health care accounted for 1% of campaign coverage studied, a sign perhaps that while Romney was opposed to Obamacare, it was not an issue he pressed as much as others because of comparisons to his experience in Massachusetts. Social issues were also notable for their absence. Together, abortion and gay rights, for instance, accounted for less than 1% of the coverage. So did the war in Afghanistan and the situation in Iraq.
- Of all the platforms studied, the tone of conversation was the most negative on Twitter. Every week on Twitter resembled the worst week for each candidate in the mainstream press. Negative Twitter conversation about Romney exceeded positive by 42 points in the eight weeks studied. For Obama, negative assertions outnumbered positive by 20 points, though it demonstrated somewhat more fluidity from week to week.
- Network news viewers received a different narrative about the candidates depending on when they watched. Romney fared better than Obama on the network morning shows on ABC, CBS and NBC. During the 7 a.m. half hour, negative segments outnumbered positive ones by 9 points for Romney vs. 17 for Obama. In the evening, Obama fared better. His narrative was fairly evenly mixed, with positive segments outnumbering negative ones by 2 points. For Romney, negative exceeded positive by 17 points.
1.  For social media, tone is measured as a percentage of the total conversation. A tweet or blog post might have multiple assertions and each is tallied as percentage of the whole. For mainstream media, the Project tallies tone by stories.
A striking feature of the 2012 race for the White House – a contest that pitted the first Mormon nominee from a major party against an incumbent president whose faith had been a source of controversy four years earlier – is how little the subject of religion came up in the media. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, just 1% of the campaign coverage by major news outlets (including broadcast and cable television, radio, newspaper front pages and the most popular news websites) focused on the religion of the candidates or the role of religion in the presidential election. Only 6% of the election-related stories in major news outlets contained any reference to religion.
Media attention to religion’s importance in the campaign peaked during the primaries, when several Republican candidates spoke about their Christian beliefs. The prominence of religious rhetoric in speeches by Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and others fueled speculation about whether white evangelical Protestants – who made up about one-third of all Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters in 2012 – would withhold support from Mitt Romney because of his Mormon faith. Indeed, the biggest single religion-related campaign story came more than a full year before the election, when a Texas minister publicly called Mormonism a “cult.” That incident, in October 2011, generated fully 5% of all coverage of religion in the presidential campaign.
When Romney captured the GOP nomination and named Rep. Paul Ryan, a Roman Catholic, as his vice presidential running mate in August 2012, they became the first non-Protestant ticket in the Republican Party’s history. But as the primaries gave way to the general election campaign, the subject of religion subsided in the media, in part because neither Romney nor President Barack Obama made much effort to raise it. Fewer than one-in-seven religion-related stories in the campaign (13%) resulted from statements or actions by either candidate.
Rather than focusing on the religious beliefs and practices of the candidates, media coverage of religion during the 2012 campaign frequently centered on the political clout of white evangelicals and their electoral choices – a topic that accounted for 29% of religion-related coverage overall. Talking about evangelicals became a way for the media to address the question of what impact Romney’s Mormon faith could have on the race, confronting religion as a tactical “horse-race” concern.
Romney was the subject of about twice as much religion-related coverage as Obama, and 45% of all religion-related stories in the campaign took the horse-race approach, dealing with how religion might impact the vote. In all, 34% of the religion coverage focused on faith as a character issue, or mentioned it in passing as part of a candidate’s identity. There was far less coverage (16%) of how religion might impact policymaking or governance.
These are among the key findings of the new study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) and the Pew Forum, both of which are part of the Pew Research Center. The study examined nearly 800 religion-related stories from cable television, network broadcast television, radio, newspaper front pages and the most popular news websites in the country between August 2011 and Election Day (Nov. 6, 2012). In addition, the study involved a sample of specialized religious publications and an analysis of hundreds of thousands of messages about the candidates’ faith on Twitter and Facebook; the social media analysis relied on technology developed by Crimson Hexagon. (For more details on how the study was conducted, see the Methodology.)
By the end of the campaign, about two-thirds of U.S. adults (65%) were aware that Romney is a Mormon. But the vast majority of Americans (82%) said they had learned “not very much” or “nothing at all” about the Mormon religion, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted shortly after the election.
Other findings of the PEJ media analysis include:
- The overall level of religion coverage was about the same as in 2008. Just as in the 2008 presidential campaign, religion accounted for a tiny portion of the total coverage devoted to the 2012 election by major news outlets. Of all the election stories studied, 1% were specifically about religion, the same portion as in 2008. Just 6% referred to religion in any way. That level of attention was fairly even across all platforms studied – with the exception of newspapers, whose front-page stories mentioned religion 16% of the time.
- More religion coverage focused on Romney than on Obama. Romney received twice as much religion coverage as Obama. Thirty-five percent of the religion-related stories focused on Romney, often raising questions about how his faith would be received by voters. Obama’s coverage, at 17%, often focused on incidents in which his Christian faith was challenged, including rumors that he is a Muslim.
- The two nominees rarely sought to bring religion into the campaign narrative. Just 8% of the religion stories during the 2012 race were prompted by statements or actions from the Romney campaign. For the Obama campaign, the comparable figure was even lower (5%). The GOP primary candidates were much more vocal about religion, prompting 22% of religion references in the media during the campaign. Nearly half of all religion stories (47%) resulted from analysis, opinion or enterprise reporting by members of the news media, highlighting the degree to which neither of the candidates wanted to raise religion as an issue.
- Religion coverage was heavily focused on the horse-race angle. Nearly half of all the religion-related stories studied (45%) dealt with how religion might impact the race. Many of these horse-race stories revolved around which candidate was winning among particular religious groups, such as white evangelical Protestants in Iowa. Other horse-race stories examined how the candidates used religion as part of their campaign strategy.
- The second biggest element of religion coverage dealt with the candidates’ beliefs and values. In all, 34% of the religion coverage during the presidential race focused on faith as a character issue or mentioned it in passing as part of a candidate’s biography. There was far less coverage -16% – of how religion might impact policymaking or governance.
- In social media, the tone of conversation about the candidates and religion tended to be negative. For Romney, negative assertions about his faith on Twitter and Facebook outnumbered positive ones by more than 3-to-1. And allegations that Obama is a Muslim appeared twice as often as messages seeking to refute those allegations.
- Within the Mormon community, media became a voice of caution to a group suddenly in the spotlight. An analysis of several publications aimed at members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) finds that during the campaign, LDS media often sought to prepare Mormons for increased scrutiny while maintaining distance from politics. For example, Church News, an official news outlet of the church, issued a statement that acknowledged Romney’s candidacy but firmly reiterated the church’s political neutrality.
In the end, the basic contours of religion in U.S. politics remained unchanged in the 2012 election, according to a Pew Forum analysis of exit poll results. In particular, white evangelical Protestants voted as overwhelmingly for Romney (79%) as they did for Republican candidates John McCain in 2008 (73%) and George W. Bush in 2004 (79%). Indeed, white evangelicals voted as strongly for Romney as Mormons did (78%), according to the Pew Forum analysis of exit poll data.