How Different Media Have Covered the General Election

When it comes to coverage of the campaign for president 2008, where one goes for news makes a difference, according to a new study.

In cable, the evidence firmly suggests there now really is an ideological divide between two of the three channels, at least in their coverage of the campaign.
Things look much better for Barack Obama—and much worse for John McCain—on MSNBC than in most other news outlets. On the Fox News Channel, the coverage of the presidential candidates is something of a mirror image of that seen on MSNBC.

The tone of CNN’s coverage, meanwhile, lay somewhere in the middle of the cable spectrum, and was generally more negative than the press overall.

On the evening newscasts of the three traditional networks, in contrast, there is no such ideological split. Indeed, on the nightly newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC, coverage tends to be more neutral and generally less negative than elsewhere. On the network morning shows, Sarah Palin is a bigger story than she is in the media generally.

And on NBC News programs, there was no reflection of the tendency of its cable sibling MSNBC toward more favorable coverage of Democrats and more negative of Republicans than the norm.

Online, meanwhile, polling tended to drive the news. And on the front pages of newspapers, which often have the day-after story, things look tougher for John McCain than they tend to in the media overall.

These are some of the findings of the study, which examined 2,412 stories from 48 outlets during the time period from September 8 to October 16. [1] The report is a companion to a study released October 22 about the tone of coverage overall. This new report breaks down the coverage of tone by specific media sectors—print, cable news, network television and online.

Among the findings:

  • MSNBC stood out for having less negative coverage of Obama than the press generally (14% of stories vs. 29% in the press overall) and for having more negative stories about McCain (73% of its coverage vs. 57% in the press overall).
  • On Fox News, in contrast, coverage of Obama was more negative than the norm (40% of stories vs. 29% overall) and less positive (25% of stories vs. 36% generally). For McCain, the news channel was somewhat more positive (22% vs. 14% in the press overall) and substantially less negative (40% vs. 57% in the press overall). Yet even here, his negative stories outweighed positive ones by almost 2 to 1.
  • CNN fell distinctly in the middle of the three cable channels when it came to tone. In general, the tone of its coverage was closer than any other cable news channel to the press overall, though also somewhat more negative than the media overall.
  • The distinct tone of MSNBC—more positive toward Democrats and more negative toward Republicans—was not reflected in the coverage of its broadcast sibling, NBC News. Even though it has correspondents appear on their cable shows and even anchor some programs on there, the broadcast channel showed no such ideological tilt. Indeed, NBC’s coverage of Palin was the most positive of any TV organization studied, including Fox News.
  • At night, the newscasts of the three traditional broadcast networks stood out for being more neutral—and also less negative—than most other news outlets. The morning shows of the networks, by contrast, more closely resembled the media generally in tone. That might surprise some who imagined those morning programs were somehow easier on political figures. Overall, 44% of the morning show stories were clearly negative, compared with 34% on the nightly news and 42% in the press overall.

These findings augment what was learned from a broader report on campaign media coverage released a week earlier entitled “Winning the Media Campaign: How the Press Reported the 2008 General Election.” That study found that in the media overall—a sample of 43 outlets studied in the six weeks following the conventions through the last debate—Barack Obama’s coverage was somewhat more positive than negative (36% vs. 29%), while John McCain’s, in contrast, was substantially negative (57% vs. 14% positive). The report concluded that this, in significant part, reflected and magnified the horse race and direction of the polls.


Secondary coding was performed on a subset of the campaign stories to further examine the tone of the coverage. That sample included 857 stories from 43 outlets.