Romney-Obama debate

Pew study finds mostly negative coverage in president's race - particularly in social media (Knight-Ridder Tribune / November 2, 2012)

A Pew study on coverage of the presidential race reveals a generally negative press for both candidates -- and a particularly hostile social media.

It also catalogs a sharp shift toward more favorable coverage for GOP candidate Mitt Romney after President Obama's poor first debate performance. Obama does, however, get a slight edge in favorable coverage over the length of the study.

The first finding might seem like only piling up of data on the obvious, but if you go inside the numbers and think about them, there is much to chew on. I think the resolutely negative tone on Twitter and Facebook especially is a real problem for democracy. It feeds into a deeper postmodern mindset of irony and snark, as well as an increasing polarization. And we know how Twitter is unduly influencing mainstream media reporting on politics from coverage of the three debates.

Pew offers solid data on that tone in 2012, including on blogs, and that's valuable.

I am sure partisans would have wanted more definitive numbers on the press showing a bias to one candidate over the other -- especially in favor of Obama, as many on the right believe. But maybe that's just the latenight show hosts the president so likes to visit who are biased.

Here's a link to the full study. It is definitely worth a visit.

Here's some of Pew's press release highlights on the report:

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 over the full eight weeks Obama has had an edge, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

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.

Overall from Aug. 27 through Oct. 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 -- a difference of 11 points between unfavorable and favorable stories. For Romney, 15% of the stories studied were favorable, 38% unfavorable and 47% mixed -- a difference toward negative stories of 23 points.

But much of that difference is due to Obama enduring mostly mixed coverage in September and Romney's highly negative coverage amid criticism of his remarks about the Libya situation and the release of a video in which he dismissed 47% of Americans. In the three weeks studied in October, after Obama was perceived to lose the first debate, the numbers reversed.

What's more, the study finds that almost all of the difference the tone of coverage was in horse race stories. When this coverage is removed -- stories focused on strategy, tactics and polls -- there is little distinction in the tone of media coverage in the numbers. In stories about the two candidates' policy ideas, biographies and records for the full eight weeks studied, 15% of Obama’s coverage was positive vs. 32% negative. For Romney it was 14% positive and 32% negative.

The study also found less horse race coverage overall than in 2008: Stories about campaign tactics made up 38% of coverage studied in the 2012 sample, down from 53% four years ago.

The report also finds that the treatment of the candidates on Twitter, Facebook and blogs generally has been much more negative than in the mainstream media, and much less sensitive to campaign events.

"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," PEJ Director Tom Rosenstiel said. "At the same time, the political discussion in social media is less sensitive to campaign events on the ground, and appears to be much more a barometer of the mood of people who use social media," Rosenstiel said.