One of the things that the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism does is to track news coverage of major events, such as the U.S. Presidential election. Their recent report tracks coverage from the two conventions up to the last Presidential Campaign debate (Oct. 21).
Slightly more than half of mainstream media coverage for Obama (D) was "mixed" - with stories having some combination of positive and negative elements. For the rest, 19% were rated as positive and 30% rated as negative, for a difference of -11 points. Mainstream coverage of Romney was more partisan - 47% classified as mixed, 15% positive, and 38% negative (for a partisan difference of 23%). Now there's a lot that could be spun from the numbers, and the way that Pew categorized coverage.
Pew generally does a good job with research, and the report they released provides far more description and detail than news stories tend to report.
Pew also differentiated "horserace" stories - those primarily discussing who is leading - from all others, and interestingly, found that in more substantive stories, coverage was more equal, although still overwhelmingly negative - for Romney, 14% of stories were positive, 55% negative; for Obama, 15% of stories was positive, 53% negative. Pew also looked at how some specific media outlets covered the candidates. Liberals tend to label Fox news as partisan; conservatives tend to find mainstream media uniformly liberal, with MSNBC an extreme case. Pew looked separately at the two cable networks, as well as CNN. On CNN's coverage of Obama, 18% was positive, 21% negative; for Romney,11% of CNN coverage was positive, 36% negative. Compared to the overall coverage, that was slightly more favorable towards Obama. Presidential campaign coverage on Fox was substantially different - only 6% of Obama coverage was favorable vs. 46% negative; for Romney, 28% was favorable while only 12% was negative. Still, the greatest outlier was MSNBC, whose coverage of Obama was 39% favorable and 15% unfavorable; but that paled by comparison to their coverage of Romney, which was only 3% positive and 71% negative.
One can clearly make the case that Fox's coverage differs from most of the media coverage examined in the Pew study - and that is part of their programming strategy. That alone, though, isn't enough to label them as "objectively" partisan, only in contrast to other media outlets. The most prevalent story tone of the coverage on the three cable networks was "mixed." Where tone was present, Fox clearly differed from CNN and MSNBC in being more likely to carry a positive Romney story (and a negative Obama story) while the others were more likely to carry a positive Obama story (and negative Romney story). One could understandably spin that as partisan (at least relative to most coverage). Still, I'd argue that for rabid partisanship, Fox pales in comparison to MSNBC- which overwhelmingly spun Romney coverage as negative (a whopping 71% of all coverage) and only managed to treat Romney favorably in 3% of their coverage of him and his campaign. And the network wasn't just overtly and overwhelmingly anti-Romney - they were twice as likely to put a positive spin on their coverage of Obama and his campaign as CNN and the rest of the media included in the Pew study.
Pew found that newspaper coverage of Obama in this election cycle was much more positive than what newspapers provided in the 2008 race. In 2008, Pew found newspaper coverage to be somewhat balanced - 70% mixed, 12% positive, 18% negative. This time around, newspaper coverage is much more positive - with 45% of Obama coverage positive, 28% mixed, and 28% negative. Newspaper coverage of Republican candidates, in contrast, was overwhelmingly negative this cycle - 69% of Romney coverage was negative, while 25% was mixed and only 6% positive.
The Pew study found that both campaigns had similar amounts of coverage - Obama was a significant in 69% of the political stories included in the sample, and Romney was a significant figure in 61%. They also found that there's been less focus on "horserace" coverage in this election (compared to 2008) - which would be a good sign if that meant that there would be more coverage of issues. However, there wasn't - coverage of policy & issues (22%), the candidates' public record (6%), and even personal matters (4%) remained about the same. Instead, two new types of political coverage gained prominence in 2012 - non-election coverage (coverage related to a candidate's existing duties), and coverage of voting issues (voter fraud, voter ID law coverage, absentee voting for the military, etc.) - each category accounting for 9% of campaign coverage.
Partisans from each side can find things in this report that they can use to support claims of media bias. That's likely to be true whenever "media" are diverse rather than monolithic. Democracies are supposed to like diversity in media voices, so one of my personal disappointments in this election cycle is the increased efforts both in the political world and the media world, to try to silence alternative voices and perspectives. Another disappointment is what I see as a continuing decline in the quality of "political" coverage - where only 1 in 5 stories address "issues" at all, and probably less than half of those address serious issues seriously.
Journalism used to proudly proclaim its role as the "fifth estate" - the purveyors of critical information about government and political activities that citizens and voters need in a democracy. They also proudly proclaimed their role as agenda-setters - providing a focus on important issues, as well as the information the public needed to take a stand. I'm not seeing a lot of support for either in this report.
Sources - Winning the Media Campaign 2012, press release from Pew
Winning the Media Campaign 2012, full Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism report