The early phase of presidential campaigns — before any votes are cast in the caucuses or primaries — has been referred to by some as the “Media Primary” because news coverage, in addition to public opinion polling, is used to assess how candidates are faring. In its study on the subject, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism used traditional content analysis as well as computer algorithmic technology to study the tone of news media and blog coverage of presidential candidates during the period beginning May 2, when candidates began to announce, through Oct. 9.

The study found that the tone of coverage about President Obama was far more negative than that of the Republicans seeking his job. The comparison should be seen in the context that he has not formally started to campaign and much of the coverage about him focused on his role as chief executive. As president, Obama generated about six times more coverage than the leading Republican newsmaker, largely because he was a primary figure in stories about the struggling economy. Nearly half (46%) of the stories in which Obama was the primary newsmaker were directly related to the economy.

Only 9% of the coverage about Obama was positive for the 23 week period under study while 34% was negative. The majority of the coverage (57%) was neutral or primarily factual in nature. Positive coverage about Obama in any given week never exceeded 10%, and it only reached 10% in four weeks out of the five months studied. Even the week of May 2-8, immediately after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Obama’s coverage was overwhelmingly negative. One reason is that many of the references in news coverage to his role in the hunt for bin Laden were matched by skepticism that he would receive any long term political benefit from it. Another was that the bin Laden news was tempered with news about the nation’s economy.

Obama fared a little better among bloggers, but not by much. During the 23 weeks studies, 14% of the conversation about him in the blogosphere was positive, 36% was negative and 50% was neutral. Read More

Russell Heimlich  is a former web developer at Pew Research Center.