Study: Obama had surge in positive news coverage the last week of the race

WASHINGTON, D.C.
November 19, 2012 8:53am
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•  Attention to Romney dropped

•  Social media conversations varied by platform


In the final days of the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama enjoyed his most positive run of news coverage in months, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Only during the week of his nominating convention was the treatment in the press more favorable, it says.

The report — which examined 660 news stories from 49 mainstream press outlets from Oct. 22 through Nov. 5 — finds that positive stories about Mr. Obama (29 percent) outnumbered negative ones (19 percent) by 10 points in the week leading up to the voting.

The data suggest that Mr. Obama’s surge in positive coverage was largely tied to his improving strategic position in the race. In the last week, 37 percent of the Obama campaign stories focused on the horserace were positive compared with 16 percent negative. That strategically focused coverage was considerably more favorable than it had been for most of the final two months of the campaign.

While the surge in positive coverage for the president was not directly tied to media reporting on Superstorm Sandy, the disaster did appear to reduce the amount of attention to Mitt Romney. In the last week of the campaign, Mr. Romney generated about 25 percent less coverage than his rival.

And within that smaller amount of coverage, the tone of Mr. Romney’s coverage remained largely unchanged from the previous two weeks, at 33 percent negative and 16 percent positive.

“It is clear that things broke for Mr. Obama in the last week,” says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “The media tend to reinforce the phenomena they observe in the final days of the race. In this case, that included the president’s performance in the storm, but even more so, the opinion polls that were moving his way.”

In social media, the conversation about the candidates in those final days varied by platform. On Twitter, Mr. Romney had his best stretch of the general election in the final week; 32 percent of the conversation was positive compared with 45 percent negative. On blogs, it was Mr. Obama who had his best week studied; positive posts were roughly equal to negative (28 percent positive to 27 percent negative). The tenor of the Facebook conversation changed relatively little; the conversation about Mr. Obama stayed steady and Mr. Romney’s declined a small amount.

Among the other findings:

• When the campaign coverage for the two candidates is measured in full — from the conventions to election eve — Mr. Obama fared better. In the period from Aug. 27-Nov. 5, the number of unfavorable stories exceeded favorable ones for both men in the mainstream media. But the tone for Mr. Obama was considerably less harsh — 20 percent of stories were favorable compared with 29 percent that were unfavorable (a gap of 9 points). For Mr. Romney, 15 percent of the stories were favorable while 37 percent were unfavorable, a gap more than twice as large as Mr. Obama’s.

• Mr. Obama received no clear bounce in media coverage from the third presidential debate. In the four days after the Oct. 22 debate, which focused on foreign policy, 15 percent of Mr. Obama’s coverage was positive while 28 percent was negative. That is similar to the previous week, which followed the second debate. Mr. Romney’s coverage during those same four days was also largely unchanged from the week before, 21 percent positive and 34 percent negative.

• Coverage from both Fox News and MSNBC became even more polarized from the rest of the media in the final week of the campaign. On Fox News, the amount of negative coverage of Mr. Obama increased — from 47 percent in the first four weeks of October to 56 percent the final week. Meanwhile, positive discussion of Mr. Romney grew, from 34 percent of segments to 42 percent. On MSNBC, the positive coverage of Mr. Obama increased from 33 percent during most of October to 51 percent during the last week, while Mr. Romney’s negative coverage increased from 57 percent to 68 percent.

• On Election Day, each of the three social media platforms served a different purpose. Twitter was the most instantaneous; 53 percent of the conversation involved users sharing breaking news or personal opinions. On Facebook, 50 percent of the conversation involved personal opinions. Blogs were more focused on the meaning of the election results, with 47 percent of the discussion involving post-mortem insights or the relaying of election stories containing broader themes.

Methodology notes

Researchers used content analysis to examine news stories from 49 mainstream news outlets. To study social media, researchers combined human coding efforts with technology from Crimson Hexagon. 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.

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.


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