Monday, November 5, 2012

Pew on US Election Coverage, Social Media

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.
  For example, Pew broke down coverage before and after the first debate.  Prior to the first debate, coverage of Romney was pretty consistently negative (11% of stories were coded as clearly favorable) - arguably following the NY Times editorial written prior to the Republican convention that branded everything that Republicans would say during their convention as lies (without bothering to wait for them to speak - now that's truly "responsible" journalism).  In contrast, coverage of Obama was twice as likely to be positive (22%) during that period.  After the first debate, though, the coverage was somewhat reversed - Romney getting positive treatment in 20% of stories, and Obama 13%.
  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 also looked at coverage of the candidates by the major broadcast networks, and found a significant difference in the tone of their coverage between their morning news-talk programs and their evening newscasts. Coverage on the morning shows was mostly mixed, but when there was a tone, it was more negative for Obama (13% positive vs. 30% negative) than it was for Romney (18% positive, 27% negative).  The evening newscasts, in comparison, gave Obama much more favorable coverage (25% positive, 23% negative) than it gave Romney (16% positive, 33% negative).  Among the three broadcast networks newscasts, ABC provided significantly more positive Obama coverage (27%) than the other networks (CBS 17%, NBC 16%) or was provided to Romney (ABC 18%, CBS 15%, NBC 18%).
  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.
  As for social media, the tone is overwhelmingly negative.  On Twitter, more than half of political tweets are negative (and a higher percentage of Romney comments being negative than Obama comments), while positive candidate tweets hovering around 20% over this period.  Negative comments also dominate on Facebook, but Facebook does have a somewhat higher percentage of positive comments (rising from 20% to around 30%).
  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.
  And yes, the economy is still the predominant issue in this election - when policy issues were covered.  Overall, 9.8% of all campaign coverage was focused on the economy (although down from 15.2% of coverage in 2008).  Within the 22% of issue coverage, the economy accounted for about half.  Two thirds of issue coverage focused on domestic policy issues, and one-third on foreign policy issues.  Interestingly, many of what media often framed as "hot-button social issues" - abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, energy, religion, and race - ended up with very little coverage, or traction within the electorate.  The same was true in coverage of foreign policy issues.  Despite a lack of coverage by many of the major media outlets, the Benghazi attack and related issues dominated foreign policy political coverage (about three-quarters of it- 5% of all coverage, making it the second most covered issue in this election cycle).  Iran, Iraq, China, Afghanistan, Syria - even the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict - received minimal coverage as political issues.

  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

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