Contact: Tom Rosenstiel, Amy Mitchell or Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ at 202.419.3650

Both Candidates Received More Negative than Positive Coverage in Mainstream NEws, but Social Media was Even Harsher

Fewer Horserace Stories- and Fewer Positive Obama Stories – than in 2008

November 2, 2012 – From the conventions to the eve of the final presidential debate, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have both received more negative than positive coverage from the news media, though over the full eight weeks Obama has had an edge, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

That advantage for Obama, however, disappeared after the debates began in early October and news coverage shifted in Romney’s direction, mirroring the momentum change reflected in many public opinion polls.

"If there is a tendency in press coverage it’s to echo the polls-and this year mostly that has been to the detriment of the candidate losing ground," PEJ Director Tom Rosenstiel said.

Overall from Aug. 27 through Oct. 21, 19% of stories about Obama studied in a cross-section of mainstream media were clearly favorable in tone, while 30% were unfavorable and 51% mixed-a difference of 11 points between unfavorable and favorable stories.  For Romney, 15% of the stories studied were favorable, 38% unfavorable and 47% mixed-a difference toward negative stories of 23 points.

But much of that difference is due to Obama enduring mostly mixed coverage in September and Romney’s highly negative coverage amid criticism of his remarks about the Libya situation and the release of a video in which he dismissed 47% of Americans. In the three weeks studied in October, after Obama was perceived to lose the first debate, the numbers reversed.

What’s more, the study finds that almost all of the difference the tone of coverage was in horse race stories. When this coverage is removed-stories focused on strategy, tactics and polls-there is little distinction in the tone of media coverage in the numbers. In stories about the two candidates’ policy ideas, biographies and records for the full eight weeks studied, 15% of Obama’s coverage was positive vs. 32% negative. For Romney it was 14% positive and 32% negative.

The study also found less horse race coverage overall than in 2008: Stories about campaign tactics made up 38% of coverage studied in the 2012 sample, down from 53% four years ago.

The report also finds that the treatment of the candidates on Twitter, Facebook and blogs generally has been much more negative than in the mainstream media, and much less sensitive to campaign events.

"The political discussion in social media appears to be much more a barometer of the mood of people who use social media than a reflection of what the candidates are doing in the campaign," Rosenstiel said.

These are among the findings of the content analysis of 2,457 stories from 49 outlets from Aug. 27, the week of the Republican convention, through Oct. 21, five days after the second presidential debate. From these outlets, PEJ analyzed every story in the sample and counted each assertion for whether it was positive in nature about a candidate, negative in nature or neutral. For social media, the researchers combined a mix of traditional human coding with technology from the firm Crimson Hexagon. Researchers trained the computer "monitors" to replicate their human coding according to PEJ rules.

The study of the tone in news coverage is not an examination of media bias. Rather, it measures the overall impression the public is receiving in media about each candidate, whether the assertion is a quote from a source, facts presented in the narrative that are determined to be favorable or unfavorable, including poll results, or is part of a journalistic analysis.

Among other findings:

  • Obama’s 2012 Coverage More Negative Than 2008: Obama’s coverage in 2008 was almost twice as positive as it has been this year (36% vs. 19%) and more positive than negative overall (36% positive vs. 29% negative that year). McCain’s coverage four years ago was much more negative than Romney’s has been this year. In 2008, nearly six in 10 stories about McCain were clearly negative in nature (57%), while only 14% were positive.
  • MSNBC, Fox Stand Out: Just 3% of the MSNBC segments studied about Romney were positive in nature, compared with 71% that were negative-a ratio of roughly 23-to-1. On Fox, 6% of the segments studied about Obama were positive while 46% were negative-a ratio of about 8-to-1 negative.
  • Negative Tone of Twitter Conversation: Every week studied on Twitter was as negative as the worst week each candidate had in the mainstream press. And it was harsher for Romney. Overall, negative statements about Obama outweighed positive on Twitter by less than 2-to-1. For Romney it was close to 4-to-1.
  • Debates Spurred More Horserace Coverage: During the three-week debate period studied, Oct. 4-21, horserace coverage filled 47% of the campaign newshole. Coverage of foreign policy during this time fell by roughly half to 7%, as did coverage of the personal topics about the candidates, which fell to 1%.
  • Coverage of Vice Presidential Candidates: Congressman Paul Ryan received roughly a third of the amount of coverage that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin did in 2008. Of this year’s running mates, Ryan has received much more unfavorable coverage than Vice President Joe Biden -28% unfavorable vs. 16% for Biden.
  • Economy Dominated, But Less So Than in 2008: The economy accounted for 10% of all campaign coverage studied, down from 15% four years earlier. It still overshadowed all other policy issues. Turmoil in the Middle East, particularly the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, was next at 5%. Health care accounted for just 1% of campaign coverage studied. Social issues were also notable for their absence. For example, abortion and gay rights together accounted for less than 1% of the coverage. So did the war in Afghanistan and the situation in Iraq.



The Project for Excellence in Journalism tracks the transformation of journalism in a changing information landscape through its annual State of the News Media report and other special reports. As part of the nonpartisan, non-advocacy Pew Research Center, it does not take positions on policy issues.