Perception is Not Always Reality

By Mike Cavender,  RTDNA Executive Director

Over the long, long presidential campaign, I grew tired of constantly hearing that this network or that newspaper was “in the tank” for one candidate or another.  Seems like someone was always complaining because one of the candidates wasn’t getting a fair shake from the mainstream media.

But if you look at a study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism released earlier this month—the reality is that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney received more negative than positive coverage from the media, with Obama having a slight edge when it was all said and done. 

The Pew study looked at media stories from August 27 through October 21.  That’s roughly the period from the national political conventions to the eve of the final Presidential debate.  Pew did content analysis of nearly 2,500 stories from 49 outlets.  The study was wide-ranging and included the three broadcast networks, the three major cable networks, the 12 most popular news websites, 11 newspaper front pages and news programming from PBS and NPR.  Radio headlines from ABC and CBS news services were also included.

Overall, Pew found that 19% of the stories about Obama had a clearly favorable tone, while 30% were unfavorable and 51% were mixed.   For his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney saw a 15% favorable story factor, 38% were unfavorable and 47% were mixed.

The slight Obama edge came largely in the form of highly negative coverage for Romney, resulting from such issues as a slow showing in public opinion polls, criticism about his comments about Libya as well as his “47%” comment surreptitiously recorded and released to the media.

But after Obama’s poor performance in the first debate, the negative vs. positive coverage was effectively reversed—and Romney became the beneficiary. 

Interestingly, the study also showed that a lot of the difference in the story tones between the two candidates was related to who was perceived to be ahead in the race—the so-called “horserace coverage.”

The “who’s up and who’s down” factor in media coverage of political campaigns receives a fair amount of criticism from pundits.   Claiming such stories do little to advance the audience’s knowledge of the real issues at stake, we’re often admonished to devote less air time and space to the latest polls and more on substantive stories that would better inform the electorate.

But the fact is that much of the public has only a fleeting interest in issues stories, especially during the early months of a campaign.   And as we know too well, these campaigns go on and on and on.  I believe, as a result, those long weeks and months actually run counter to the idea of stimulating voter’s interest in really learning what the candidates believe in and what they claim they’ll do if elected. 
Add to that more than $2.5 billion (that’s billion with a B) in candidate and SuperPac ads (many of which contained half-truths, at best) and you ended up with an electorate that was simply exhausted from the whole thing and couldn’t wait for it to be over!

So maybe there needs to be less concern over whether the media is doing its job in providing balanced coverage, and more concern by us to look for ways we can better engage voters in understanding what’s really at stake in an election as important as the one we just held.