Throughout most of the general campaign period, President Obama received slightly better coverage in the mainstream press than Governor Romney did. An earlier PEJ report showed that from August 27 to October 21, 19% of stories about Obama were clearly favorable in tone while 30% were unfavorable and 51% were mixed. For Romney, 15% of the stories were favorable, while 38% were unfavorable and 47% were mixed-a differential toward negative stories of 23 points.

However, most of the difference during that period could be accounted for by the horse-race stories, which generally showed Obama with small leads in important state and national polls. If those horse-race stories were removed from the sample, the coverage of the two candidates became quite similar-15% of the remaining campaign stories about Obama were positive, 32% were negative and 53% were mixed. For Romney it was 14% positive, 32% negative and 55% mixed.

The next week included the third and final debate, which most polls indicated Obama had won. Obama, however, did not see an improvement in his media coverage. The week of the final debate, October 22 to 28, Obama’s coverage was 16% positive and 30% negative while Romney’s was 18% positive and 32% negative-about on par with the week prior. 

Then, in the final week (October 29 to November 5), a noticeable change occurred: Obama’s coverage improved dramatically while Romney’s coverage stayed about the same but shrank in volume.

That week, fully 29% of the Obama stories were positive compared to 19% which were negative, a net plus of 10 points. That was the best week Obama had seen since the week of the Democratic National Convention in early September; the final week also marked only the second week of the general election when Obama was the subject of more positive stories than negative.

Romney’s coverage in that final week slipped slightly, but not by a significant amount. That week, 16% of his stories were positive compared to 33% that were negative, a difference of 17 points.

Rather than Romney faltering in the last week, in other words, the difference was largely that Obama benefited from a new media narrative.

Not only did the tone change, but the amount of coverage changed as well. From October 1 to 28, Romney and Obama were both covered at roughly the same amount. Obama was a significant presence (meaning he was in 25% of the story or more) in 75% of the campaign-related coverage compared to 71% for Romney.

But in the final week, a bigger discrepancy was seen as Obama was a significant presence in 80% of the coverage, and Romney was a significant presence in 62%.

The data suggest two major factors in Obama’s increased and improved coverage in the final week of the campaign. One was the increase in amount of attention paid to the horse-race components of the race, which showed Obama with key advantages late in the race. During the final week, 46% of all press coverage of the campaign focused on horse-race and strategy stories, larger than the 39% that was devoted to such issues throughout the entire race.

And in those horse-race stories of the final week, Obama did particularly well. Fully 37% of the horse-race stories including Obama were positive while only 16% were negative, a net plus of 21 points. For Romney that week, 20% of those stories were positive compared to 29% negative, a net minus of 9 points.

The other major element was Hurricane Sandy-but its impact on the tone of Obama’s coverage appears to be more subtle than direct.

The disastrous storm, which inflicted its most severe damage on the U.S. on October 29, provided Obama with numerous opportunities to be seen in a presidential role rather than as a candidate. In general, Obama earned high marks on his handling of the storm’s aftermath and received praise from many, including Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a key supporter of Romney.

The overall news coverage of the storm was extensive. For example, for the five days between October 29 and November 2, all three major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) led both their morning and evening newscasts with stories about Sandy-an unusual occurrence. However, the media did not run many stories that directly connected the disastrous events with the presidential campaign, even when Obama was a key part of those stories.

During the final week of the campaign, 4% of the newshole was devoted to stories focused on Hurricane Sandy, more than was devoted to other major issues such as Libya (3%), unemployment (1%), taxes (1%) and political endorsements (1%).

But of the 16 stories in the sample that focused exclusively on the hurricane and included Obama in a significant way, only 3 were positive and 5 were negative. (Romney was only a significant presence in two hurricane-focused stories-both of them neutral.)

The data suggest that the media did not run a huge number of stories focused on Obama and the hurricane and even those that did run did not offer a glowing review of the president’s performance.  Instead, the storm may have had a more indirect influence on voters who saw passing references to Obama in other Sandy stories. If Obama was not present in 25% of a story about the storm, it would not appear in the data as an Obama related story.

The Role of Fox News and MSNBC

Throughout the campaign, the two most popular cable news channels, Fox News and MSNBC, stood out from the rest the media coverage. Fox News was much more positive about Romney than the press as a whole and substantially more negative about Obama. MSNBC was even more overwhelmingly negative about Romney and offered mostly positive coverage about Obama.

During the final week of the campaign, those differences became even more pronounced.

That week, when the media overall were more positive about Obama than negative, Fox News went a different direction and became more negative about him. From October 1 to 28, 4% of Obama’s stories were positive and 47% were negative (a difference of 43 points). In the final week, however, that tenor changed so that 5% of Obama’s stories were positive while 56% were negative-a difference of 51 points.

At the same time, when Romney was receiving negative coverage in the final week from the rest of the press, Fox was different; 42% of its segments about him were positive while only 11% were negative. This was more positive than the earlier part of October when 34% of Fox News’ Romney coverage was positive and 9% negative. 

MSNBC moved in the other direction. MSNBC’s coverage of Romney during the final week (68% negative with no positive stories in the sample), was far more negative than the overall press, and even more negative than it had been during October 1 to 28 when 5% was positive and 57% was negative.

For Obama, meanwhile, the coverage improved in the last week. From October 1 to 28, 33% was positive and 13% negative. During the campaign’s final week, fully 51% of MSNBC’s stories were positive while there were no negative stories at all in the sample.