PEW Report Shows Negative Media Bias Towards McCain

October 23, 2008

Yup, it’s true. For those who wish (and I encourage all to wish), you can read the full report here. I’ll hit the highlights for those who don’t have the time. 

Press treatment of Obama has been somewhat more positive than negative, but not markedly so.

But coverage of McCain has been heavily unfavorable — and has become more so over time. In the six weeks following the conventions through the final debate, unfavorable stories about McCain outweighed favorable ones by a factor of more than three-to-one — the most unfavorable of all four candidates — according to the study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

For Obama during this period, just over a third of the stories were clearly positive in tone (36%), while a similar number (35%) were neutral or mixed. A smaller number (29%) were negative.

For McCain, by comparison, nearly six-in-ten stories studied were decidedly negative in nature (57%), while fewer than two-in-ten (14%) were positive.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? It’s proof that the media has a liberal bias. Except…wait…let’s read a little further….


Much of the increased attention for McCain derived from actions by the senator himself, actions that, in the end, generated mostly negative assessments. In many ways, the arc of the media narrative during this phase of the 2008 general election might be best described as a drama in which John McCain has acted and Barack Obama has reacted.

As for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, her coverage had an up and down trajectory, moving from quite positive, to very negative, to more mixed. Driving that tone toward a more unfavorable light were the probing of her public record and her encounters with the press. Little of her trouble came from coverage of her personal traits or family issues. In the end, she also received less than half the coverage of either presidential nominee, though about triple that of her vice presidential counterpart, Joe Biden.

Then, a little further on down…

Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden was nearly the invisible man. His coverage enjoyed just one large moment, the vice presidential debate, which also provided the only positive or neutral contribution to his coverage. Aside from that week, the limited coverage he did receive was far more negative than Palin’s, and nearly as negative as McCain’s.

So…what does this mean? As McCain’s campaign tactics have changed and the percentage of ads and stump speeches with a negative tone increased, the media’s findings about the McCain campaign became increasingly negative. Also interesting to note, at this same time, the amount of coverage of McCain, in comparison to Obama, has evened out. Prior to the convention, Obama enjoyed 50% more coverage by the media than McCain did. So really, when it’s all added up, does this truly imply a negative bias towards McCain/Republicans? And does this report come as much of a surprise? Personally, I’d have to say no on both counts. However, there is one other finding from the report that I found much more interesting, and surprising.

The economy was hardly a singular lens through which the media perceived the race. Though it was the No. 1 campaign topic overall, in five out of the six weeks analyzed, other topics drew more media attention, and the economy accounted for not much more of the campaign newshole (18%) than did assessments of the candidates in the four debates (17%).

Horse race reporting, once again, made up the majority of coverage, but less so than earlier in the contest or in previous elections. Since the conventions ended, 53% of the newshole studied has focused on political matters, particularly tactics, strategy and polling — twice the coverage focused on policy (20%). The focus on tactics and horse race increased in the last three weeks as both campaigns became more negative in their rhetoric.

To me, that’s truly ridiculous. American’s continue to state the economy as the most important issue, and continue to want to see the campaigns address issues more than political horse racing and smear attacks. But, in all honesty, it is difficult to blame the media for this kind of coverage when the campaigns themselves seem to address fewer and fewer issues and policy related matters as time goes on. But while the media may not be to blame for their coverage, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t hold themselves to a higher standard. Since I’m not a Nielsen family (and never have met one…who are these people anyways?) I can’t exactly send a message by not watching the coverage. But personally, I’m going to be contacting as many of the media outlets as I possibly can pointing out the above findings, and letting them know that I am appalled that they have continued to let their coverage be steered by the campaigns themselves, and until they start covering more issues and policy and less campaign tactics and smear stories, they at least won’t be getting any of my money through purchases of magazines/newspapers. The people of this nation deserve better, and it’s time we demand it.


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