President Obama holds a surprise press conference in in the Brady Press… (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA )
Both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have received overwhelmingly negative coverage from the news media, a particular reversal of fortune for Obama, considering the positive stories he drew in 2008, according to a new study by a journalism watchdog group.
About 72% of the “master narrative” statements about Obama have been negative over the last 10 weeks, while 71% of such statements about Romney were negative, researchers for the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism said in a study released Thursday.
That put the Democrat and the GOP contender on the receiving end of about as much negative coverage as President George W. Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry received in the 2004 presidential race. The findings are a comedown for Obama, who got 69% positive coverage in 2008, compared with 43% for Republican Sen. John McCain, according to an earlier Pew study.
The organization attributed much of the negativity in 2012 to the ability of the two sides to get relatively unfiltered messages in front of the public—particularly through online outlets that do less parsing of partisan rants by both sides.
The project looked at the personal portrayal of the two candidates in 50 major news outlets from late May through early August. The researchers examined a total of 1,772 assertions made about Obama and Romney in 800 stories from radio, cable and network TV, newspapers and popular websites.
One theme dominated in coverage of Obama — the economy. Half of all the value statements about the president were on his economic record, and the idea that his policies had failed to help the economy predominated, by a 2-to-1 margin, over the notion that things would be much worse without his actions. Another prevalent theme in Obama coverage has been to question whether he believes in capitalism and “the ideas of individualism,” the study found.
On Romney’s side, three unhelpful themes tended to crop up most frequently—that the former private equity investor is a “vulture” capitalist who didn’t care about workers, that he is an out-of-touch elitist, and that he is awkward and prone to gaffes.
Pew’s polling found that the notion that Obama was to blame for the poor economy has divided voters. The idea that Romney is awkward and elitist has stuck with more voters, the study found.
Reporters and talk show hosts used to drive much of the conversation about the candidates’ character and positions. In the 2000 election, half of the assertions Pew found came from those journalists or commentators. That compares with just 27% in the period just measured, with campaigns and their surrogates now accounting for nearly half of the assertions in the media.
Web-based news sites tend to break stories most quickly and, apparently for that reason, to rely most heavily on the campaigns for information, while leaning less on outside experts. The dozen most prominent news websites in the country got 58% of their narrative statements about Romney and Obama from the campaigns and their surrogates. The sites got just 2% of the value statements from outside experts — compared with other media that got 10% of the narrative assertions from experts.
The study found Fox News to be overwhelmingly negative toward Obama and MSNBC similarly down on Romney. “Fox has offered a mixed view of Romney, but its assessments of Obama’s record and character have run negative by a ratio of 6 to 1,” the study said. “The numbers are almost identical, in reverse, for MSNBC.”
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