The Pew Research Center is out with a new report today looking at media coverage of the presidential campaign since this summer’s conventions. It’s got plenty of worthwhile tidbits and newsy nuggets, but the one that jumped out at us right away was this snapshot of just how segmented and partisan (and negative) cable news has been this election cycle:
The study … reveals the degree to which the two cable channels that have built themselves around ideological programming, MSNBC and Fox, stand out from other mainstream media outlets. And MSNBC stands out the most. On that channel, 71% of the segments studied about Romney were negative in nature, compared with just 3% that were positive-a ratio of roughly 23-to-1. On Fox, 46% of the segments about Obama were negative, compared with 6% that were positive-a ratio of about 8-to-1 negative. These made them unusual among channels or outlets that identified themselves as news organizations.
And for you visual learners:
To be clear, the negative-positive-mixed trichotomy treats all negative coverage the same. It doesn’t tell us whose negative coverage is the most negative in tone, nor does it make any kind of judgment on whether that coverage—be it of Obama or Romney—was journalistically sound. What it does suggest, however, is that MSNBC actually devotes a relatively larger chunk of its political coverage going after Romney than Fox does criticizing the president.
And what about CNN, the most moderate—and least loved—of the cable news trinity?
CNN stood between MSNBC and Fox in its treatment of the two candidates but Obama fared markedly better than Romney and better than in the media generally. On CNN, 18% of the stories about Obama were positive compared to 21% negative, a mixed narrative. In Romney’s case, negative stories (36%) outnumbered positive (11%) by more than 3-to-1.
However, as with the press studied overall, if one removes horse-race stories from the equation, the tone of coverage of Obama and Romney becomes more comparable. In those stories not framed around the horse race, 13% were positive for Obama compared to 24% negative while 13% were positive for Romney compared to 30% negative.
For comparison, here’s how the coverage broke down across the larger cross section of the major media outlets surveyed: For Obama, 19 percent of stories were clearly favorable, compared to 30 percent unfavorable and 51 percent mixed. For Romney, 15 percent of the coverage was favorable, compared to 38 percent unfavorable and 47 percent mixed.
But, as Pew explains, much of that imbalance is the result of the type of horse-race coverage that has come to dominate much of the political news cycle:
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.
With those stories removed from the equation, Obama’s positive-negative split was 15 percent to 32 percent, while Romney’s was 14 percent to 32 percent.