Much is being made of a recent Pew-led study Project for Journalism Excellence on how much negative coverage the presidential candidates get. According to the report, John McCain is getting more negative coverage than Barack Obama in the most recent reporting period.
Partisans are using it as clear evidence of reporters slanting their coverage to elect Obama. I say not so fast. If you read deeper into the report, you find that much of the so called “negative” coverage is driven by McCain’s drop in the polls when the financial system collapsed. The report says:
How much of the coverage of Obama is simply a reflection of his leading in the polls?
The data clearly point in this direction for some of the explanation. Of those stories that focused mostly on polls, a clear majority (57%) were positive for Obama, while less than a quarter (23%) were negative. Similarly, stories about the electoral map, swing states and campaign strategy were even more favorable (77% positive vs. 6% negative). These represent the most positive element of Obama’s coverage.
The data also suggest there is some truth to the idea that the financial crisis was a boon to Obama in the media narrative, though less than was the case with these horse race-oriented stories. Coverage of the economy and financial meltdown was more likely to be positive as negative (36% vs.23%). The more political component of the financial crisis hitting the campaign helped Obama even more: Obama stories concerning McCain’s announcement that he would suspend campaigning to respond to the crisis were positive 44% vs. 9% negative.
Most of the so-called negative coverage, I prefer just to call it coverage, is about McCain’s falling polls numbers. Falling polls numbers are just a fact, a snapshot in the campaign that day.
Reports such as the Pew tend to be oversimplified. Just what is negative coverage and what is positive coverage? It’s difficult to say. Is an engagement announcement “positive” news? It’s not if it’s your former girlfriend getting married. The point is it’s in the eye of the beholder.
And how much control do reporters covering the story have over the events in a campaign?
How much of supposed “negative” coverage is the candidate’s own doing, such as the congresswoman from Minnesota who started a national firestorm with comments on Hardball. The next day, Colin Powell suggested the comments were “nonsense.” Do you not cover that?
Tim Mahoney, a U.S. House member from Florida, seems to be lighting himself on fire with a series of missteps and personal transgressions. ABC News broke the original story of the Congressman’s affairs and the coverage has grown from them. You can certainly argue it’s negative but what are journalists supposed to do?
Most complaints of bias come from partisans or campaigns looking to blame someone for their candidate’s failures. We’ve seen it from the two presidential candidates and Hillary Clinton in the primaries.
Other bias complaints come from people who view the world through a partisan and ideological lense and refuse to believe anything that might put their candidate in bad light. Facts don’t seem to matter. The truth does not seem to matter.
I often hear that all journalists are secretly ( or not so secretly) rooting for Obama. Maybe, but to say the New York Times or Washington Post wants one candidate or another is a stretch. It assumes all the people who work in the office think alike and can be swayed to agree to work against a candidate. Most of the newsrooms I’ve been in, the folks that work there can hardly agree where to go to lunch let alone to set aside ethics codes and purposely try to influence an election.
You rarely see names attached charges of bias. It’s always the “media” or some big news operation.
It is also improtant to separate what is really suppsoed to be opinion, and TV cable shows make that much harder these days, and what is straight news coverage. Opinion columns marked as such are and staff editorials are supposed to express opinions and choose a side. That’s their nature. It’s not always easy to explain the difference to people.
Tough questions are not bias. Probing stories that provides deeper understanding of a candidate or issue is not bias.
Weighing positive and negative stories is absurd and a really bad way to measure quality of coverage of a campaign.