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Aconstant right wing narrative throughout the presidential campaign was that mainstream media was "in the bag" for President Obama. The reasoning being heard now that the election has been decided is that one reason Mitt Romney lost was that he consistently got the raw end of the deal when it came to news coverage of the two candidates.

obama press conference

Like so many conservative meme's spewed in blogs, and on talk radio and Fox in the run-up to November 6 and its aftermath, it turns out that this one has no bearing in reality. And the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism has the numbers to prove it.

Late Friday afternoon, Pew released its analysis of campaign coverage from the conventions through Election Day. The findings: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each received more negative than positive coverage from the news media.

While Presodent Obama had slightly more favorable coverage than did Romney until the first debate, that shifted in the Republican's favor then before shifting back later in the campaign.

According to Pew, "Overall from August 27 through October 21, 19% of stories about Obama … were clearly favorable in tone while 30% were unfavorable and 51% mixed.

"For Romney, 15% of the stories studied were favorable, 38% were unfavorable and 47% were mixed" a 23 point shift toward negative stories the report concludes.

Pew used same methodology as it previously did in rating media coverage of presidential candidates from the two major parties. It analyzed 2,457 stories from 49 outlets from the week of the Republican convention through five days after the second presidential debate.

pew election coverage poll

Fact Check

Media coverage of Romney shifted decidedly negative when fact checking began tallying his lies in MSM news coverage. Beyond Steve Benen's weekly "Mendacity of Mitt" series at, publications ranging from the Washington Postto local newspapers with a substantial, regional reach began keeping track of Romney's troubles with truth telling.

Also contributing to Romney's difficulty with the media, Pew reports, were his untempered remarks about Libya following the Benghazi attack and the tape that surfaced showing his true disdain – some described it as contempt – for the "47%-ers" in the country.

Yet despite this shift in the public perception of the former Massachusetts governor, Pew found that after removing "horse race" and "fact check" stories, coverage of the two candidates overall was fairly balanced. According to Pew, 15% of campaign stories about Obama were positive as were 14% of stories about Romney. Negative stories stood at 32% for both candidates. Some 53% of the stories about Obama were mixed compared with 55% for Romney.

Among other major findings from the study:

  • Even though the polls were very tight, "horse race" coverage declined from 2008.
  • The two candidates received roughly the same amount of coverage.
  • Coverage of the economy – while a dominant theme of stories – was down from 2008.
  • Debate coverage was more about who won and lost rather than what candidates actually said.

Early Risers

If there was a bias in network coverage, it depended on the time of day a report aired.

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According to the Pew study, Romney fared better than Obama on the morning shows on ABC, CBS and NBC. In the evening, Obama did better and his narrative was fairly evenly mixed, with positive segments outnumbering negative ones by 2 points. For Romney, negative stories exceeded positive by 17 points.

pew poll

Not unexpectedly, the two candidate's fate on cable news depended heavily on whether a story was on Fox or MSNBC. On Fox, 46% of the stories about Obama were negative and 6% positive; on MSNBC, 71% of the pieces about Romney were negative and only 3% positive. Pew didn't measure CNN.

But it was on social media, especially Twitter, where the candidates received the harshest treatment.

Researchers sampled the full "fire hose" of public tweets. Every week on Twitter resembled the worst week for each candidate in the mainstream press. Negative Twitter conversations about Romney exceeded positive by 42 points while negative tweets about Obama outnumbered positive one by 20 points, though his Twitter coverage showed more fluidity from week to week.

What Bias?

Whatever bias may have existed in stories seems to have been the fault of the candidates rather than reporters.

pew election coverage poll

Romney created his own problem with the media by flouting the truth and using falsehoods as a campaign strategy, figuring the media wouldn't call him on it and the public wouldn’t notice. After all, it was a senior Romney aide who said after the first debate that the candidate wouldn't be dictated to by fact checkers.

But the President created many of his own coverage issues, as well. For one thing, it was not until roughly the second debate that Obama began sounding like an earnest candidate as opposed to someone going through the motions. Even before the Democratic convention, he often came across as emotionally removed from the campaign going on around him. Surrogates – especially his wife, Michelle, and former President Bill Clinton – were given much higher marks that the president for making Obama's case to the country.

The president won reelection not because the media was tilting its coverage but because he realized in time that he needed a more aggressive campaign stance. That we was up against a candidate who kept shooting himself in the foot helped, of course, as did the Obama brain trust successfully painting Romney as an arrogant rich boy who didn't have the faintest idea how most of the country lived day-to-day.


Romney had an uphill climb to win as it was. There were lots of things working against his victory but the news media wasn't one of them.

Charley James

Author and journalist Charley James’ next book is about his experience becoming homeless. When published, Charley will donate a percentage of his advance and royalties to homeless organizations.

More articles by Charley JamesHelp keep Charley living indoors.

Follow Charley on Twitter @SuddenlyHomeles. Posted: Saturday, 22 September 2012 Charley's next book is about his experience being homeless. When published, he will donate a percentage of his royalties to homeless organizations.

Published: Sunday, 11 November 2012