Pew study: Obama, Romney get nearly equal treatment from media. Equally negative.

August 23, 2012

The news media’s portrayal of the leading presidential candidates has been overwhelmingly negative during the 2012 campaign, with President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney coming in for about equal numbers of unflattering reports about their character, an extensive new study concludes.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism says campaign coverage has rivaled that of 2004 in its negativity. The center began tracking media “narratives” about the candidates in 2000.

The Washington-based organization said negative media reports about the candidates have been almost balanced in this race. About 71 percent of the reports about Romney’s traits and experiences have been negative, while 72 percent of those about Obama have been negative.

The center based its conclusions on a survey of 1,772 assertions made about the candidates in 50 newspapers, TV and radio programs and Web sites over a 10-week period beginning in May. The analysis excluded media reports about the candidates’ strategies, their standing in the polls or their policies.

That finding might surprise critics who have insisted that the media have favored Obama during the campaign. A recent poll by the Rasmussen organization found that 59 percent of likely voters say Obama has received better treatment in the media, compared with 18 percent who say that about Romney.

The Pew center, however, did not seek to document media bias; instead, it counted the number of positive and negative statements made about the candidates’ record and character.

The study found, for example, that the dominant narrative about Obama involved assessments of his economic record — primarily, statements that he has not done enough to help the economy. For Romney, the dominant themes were about his wealth and business experience — primarily, that they have put him out of touch with voters.

To a large extent, those media narratives reflect the candidates’ attacks on each other through their campaign statements, as well as the negative ads by the campaigns and their allies, said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The study found that an increasing percentage of the negative comments and observations in the media came from partisan sources quoted by journalists rather than from journalists themselves.

“Journalists to an increasing degree are ceding control of what the public learns in elections to partisan voices,” the study concludes. “Less of what we are hearing is coming from the press as an independent intermediary, filtering or assessing political rhetoric. And to that degree, the press is acting more as an enabler or conduit and less as an autonomous reportorial source.”

Rosenstiel said that finding might reflect several trends: the campaigns’ nearly instantaneous ability to respond to attacks; the highly polarized nature of the campaign; and shrinking resources among media organizations, which he said have emphasized breaking news over in-depth analysis.

Of the four presidential campaigns that the project has studied, the 2012 race is similar to 2004 in terms of being the most negative. In 2004, 75 percent of the media narratives about the Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), were negative, compared with 70 percent for President George W. Bush, according to the organization.

The project also noted that the negative tone of the 2012 coverage correlates with — the center declined to say “caused” — negative public attitudes toward the candidates, with both nominees viewed less favorably in public opinion polls than any major-party candidate since 1992.

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Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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