Barack Obama campaigned for president four years ago on a theme of change. Now, four years later, he has seen change in the way the media has covered him – change for the worse. That's a major finding of an exhaustive study by the Pew Research Center titled, "Winning the Media Campaign 2012."
The report stated, "…The starkest difference is that coverage of Obama is only half as positive this year (19 percent) as it was in 2008 (36 percent). And while his percentage of negative coverage in 2012 (31 percent) is only modestly larger than four years earlier (29 percent), neutral coverage has grown markedly, to 50 percent this year compared with 35 percent in 2008."
Mitt Romney received more favorable treatment from the media than Arizona Republican Senator John McCain did four years ago, according to the study.
"The percentage of positive coverage about Romney is very similar to McCain's four years earlier, but there is about one-third less negative coverage of the former Massachusetts governor's campaign," the report stated. "Romney has also seen considerably more neutral coverage than McCain received in 2008."
Of the three major networks, only ABC gave Obama more positive coverage than negative (27 percent to 20 percent). CBS and NBC were essentially the same. On CBS, 17 percent of the stories about Obama had a positive tone and 28 percent were negative. Of NBC's stories, 16 percent had a positive tone and 29 percent were negative.
Romney did not fare any better on the networks. On ABC, Romney's negative stories outpaced his positive ones (33 percent to 18 percent). On CBS, 15 percent of the stories about Romney had a positive tone and 29 percent were negative. NBC had an identical percentage of negative stories, but a slightly higher percentage of stories with a positive tone (18 percent).
The high-octane, opinion-driven cable networks provided decidedly partisan coverage of the two presidential candidates, with Fox favoring Romney, MSNBC backing Obama and CNN sandwiched between the two.
After studying the tone of coverage between April 27 and Oct. 21, 2012, the Pew report found that 46 percent of the stories about Obama on Fox were negative and only 6 percent were positive. On MSNBC, by contrast, 39 percent about Obama were positive and 15 percent were negative. More negative than positive stories about Obama appeared on CNN, but only by a margin of 21 percent to 18 percent. Of the stories about Romney on Fox, 28 percent were positive and 12 percent were negative.
There was a huge imbalance on MSNBC, with 71 percent of the stories about Romney negative and only 3 percent positive. There were three times as many negative stories than positive about Romney on CNN (33 percent to 11 percent).
"MSNBC was especially negative in its treatment of Romney's policy prescriptions," the Pew study found. "Fully 75 percent of the stories focused on Romney's policies were negative compared with 1 percent that were positive. For Obama, by comparison, 32 percent of policy stories were favorable while 18 percent were negative."
The report stated, "Fox aired more negative stories about Obama than positive on every aspect of campaign coverage. When it came to policy, 6 percent of the stories on Fox about Obama were positive and 51 percent were negative.
"Fox also focused much more on Obama than on Romney. The Democratic Party nominee was a significant figure in 74 percent of Fox campaign stories compared with 49 percent for Romney."
Unlike Fox and MSNBC, CNN devoted a similar amount of time to both candidates (63 percent to Obama and 59 percent for Romney.
"The biggest change in CNN coverage from four years ago is the number of stories with no clear positive or negative tone," the report said. "In 2008, about a quarter of the stories for Obama (25 percent) and McCain (26 percent) were mixed in tone. In this campaign, the count of balanced stories has more than doubled in 2012, fully 61 percent of Obama's stories were mixed compared to 53 percent for Romney."
The report found social media far more critical of the candidates than mainstream media. On Twitter, 48 percent of the discussions about Obama were negative, compared with 58 percent for Romney. On Facebook, 53 percent on Obama were negative versus 62 percent for Romney. Comments about Romney on blogs were slightly more negative than those about Obama (46 percent to 44 percent).
"Throughout the eight-week period studied, a good deal of the difference in treatment of the two contenders is related to who was perceived to be ahead in the race. When horse-race stories—those focused on strategy, tactics and the polls—are taken out of the analysis, and one looks at those framed around the candidates' policy ideas, biographies and records, the distinctions in the tone of media coverage between the two nominees vanish," the report stated. "With horse-race stories removed, 15 of campaign stories about Obama were positive, 32 percent were negative and 53 percent were mixed. For Romney it was 14 percent positive, 32 percent negative and 55 percent mixed."
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA)