Pew Study: Media Equally Negative to Romney and Obama

At the Member Feed, The King Prawn notes  a study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, and he pages me for my thoughts about the study.

One of the main findings of the study is that the press has been critical of both candidates, and that it has been approximately equally critical of each.  Specifically, that the coverage of Obama  has been 72 percent negative, and that the coverage of Romney has been 71 percent negative.

I’m somewhat skeptical of the methodology of the survey. Its method of assessing whether coverage is negative or positive seems very subjective to me, and, accordingly,  I would like to know the political views of the people making those assessments.  (In my book on judging media bias I tried to make my methods as objective as possible. For example, I didn’t use my own judgements about whether the slant of a story was liberal or conservative; I used quantitative data about things like the think tanks the story cited or the loaded political phrases that the journalist used when reporting the story. Notwithstanding these efforts, I still worried that subjectivity could creep into the data coding. Consequently, I tried to hire an approximately equal number of conservative and liberal research assistants to code my data.)

Nevertheless, the results, for the most part seem sound.  For example, consistent with my own casual observations, the study found that the press was overwhelmingly more positive toward Barack Obama in 2008 than it was toward John McCain. (69 percent of their assertions about Obama were positive, while 43 percent of their assertions about John McCain were positive.)

That said, I’d like to offer a couple responses to the findings. First, just because the press treats Obama and Romney equally does not mean that it they are unbiased. Many of the assertions that Pew studied were ones about the character of the candidates. I do not believe that the two candidates are of equal character.  

For instance, while Obama has admitted to doing “a little blow,” Romney has been a teetotaler his entire life. Although both call themselves Christians, I’m willing to bet that Romney has attended many more church services than Obama. Further, I’m willing to bet that Romney has donated a much larger percentage of his income to charity than Obama has.  

Regardless, a proper definition of “unbiased” does necessarily mean treating two candidates equally. Edward R. Murrow perhaps explained this best. He once criticized journalists who feel they have to treat two sides of any issue equally. He noted that to insist upon such an artificially equal treatment of two sides of an issue “is like balancing the views of Jesus Christ with Judas Iscariot.”

My second response involves the negative nature of the coverage—that with both candidates the press has been more negative than positive. I’m not sure that I’m bothered by this. One reason is that, as the study shows, the negativity has been fairly constant over the past decade or so. For instance, the study also found that the press was just as negative toward George W. Bush, John Kerry and Al Gore as it has been towards Romney and Obama. The trend does not seem to be moving toward more negativity nor toward less negativity (except for the outlier of the treatment of Obama in 2008).

Another reason is that maybe the overall negativity is a good thing. As the great philosopher Karl Popper noted, one would like an electoral system that (i) has a high probability of selecting great leaders and (ii) has a low probability of selecting awful leaders. But as he argues, (ii) is much more important than (i). That is, it’s better that the electoral system be good at culling awful leaders than selecting great ones. I agree, and I think a press focused on negativity probably aids  this pursuit.

  1. Richard Finlay

    I would like to know how negativity is scored.  Is it just as negative to say “Obama is not communicating his message well” as it is to say “Romney is a racist”?

  2. The King Prawn

    With a return to normal levels of negativity regarding both candidates, how do you see the media’s effect differing in this election compared to the previous one? Was the media’s normally leftward influence heightened last time due to their slobbering love affair with their candidate?

    The inverse treatment of Obama last time really proved my favorite political cartoon from after the election:

    wood.jpg

  3. Scott Abel

    I’m busy at the moment, and don’t have time to examine the methodology (I teach research methods at university). There is a test, called Scott’s Pi, which is a measure of the intercoder reliability of the results. Essentially, you do a small sample of your sample, and then see how much the data coders have the same answer to the coding question. I would be interested to know if it was applied.

    What is interesting to me is the fact that it’s being treated as showing that the news media is balanced (See, we’re hard on both of them!). Romney, however, holds no office, while Obama’s in the big chair, and the news on the economy is unremittingly bad.

  4. Garrett Petersen

    This study doesn’t indicate whether the criticisms are coming from the left or the right.  ”Obama’s not pushing socialism hard enough!” is hardly an indication of unbiasedness.

  5. KC Mulville

    I can’t help but step back and ask an overly philosophical question: whether they do it equally or not … by what right does the media impose a negative or positive interpretation at all?

    No one is truly objective (or should be, for that matter), but wouldn’t a perfectly objective or even neutral media report all events without any interpretation at all? 

    For instance, an objective report would say,

    • “Mitt Romney delivered a speech in Ohio.” (And stop.)

    The bias begins when the reporter adds his version of context:

    • “And Romney needs to win Ohio.”

    The report gets overtly biased when it becomes:

    • “Ohio went for Obama last time, and will likely go for Obama again, because this heavily industrial state is in favor of the auto bailout.”

    It’s one thing to analyze the balance of bias. But it’s also important to analyze the frequency and magnitude of bias.

    Of course, a theoretically objective report would be boring. It would be little more than a schedule of events, reported after the fact. Where the bias begins is when the reporter wants to include the “meaning” of the events. Meaning is, by nature, subjective. 

  6. Last Outpost on the Right

    EstoniaKat makes an important point. The men are not in equal positions, nor is their power equal. They should not be treated the same. The should both be treated with fairness … but that’s different. 

    Does this even make any sense?

  7. Strategoist

    This study is nearly useless.  It simply tracks messaging.  There is no context for how the message is deployed.  Even media matters gives context, i.e.: did messengers receive “pushback” on message or not?  Also unclear how study weighs story placement: whats on A1, & what’s on A12?  The web version being: ricochet main feed placement vs member feed.  :P

    Its good news for Romney MAYBE bc it demonstrates message discipline…I’ll read through it, but that’s my view at first blush.

  8. Lucy Pevensie
    First, just because the press treats Obama and Romney equally does not mean that it they are unbiased. Many of the assertions that Pew studied were ones about the character of the candidates. I do not believe that the two candidates are of equal character.  · 1 hour ag

    Yes, that’s what I was trying to say on KP’s feed. If they weren’t biased, then maybe 30% of the Romney reporting would be negative, and 95% of the Obama reporting would be negative. Because Obama is just a worse candidate.

  9. wmartin

    Bad news in Gallup. No bounce forming, and according to Frank Newport the last few  nights of polling have been strong for Obama. The more the public saw of our best guys, the more they supported Obama.

    I mainly blame this on the media tone, the relentless “fact-checking” nitpicks, etc. If the last few nights, which I thought were exceptional, can’t get around the media’s filter and move the polls, i don’t know what can.

  10. R. Craigen

    Sampling error.

    Sample Breitbart.  99% negative on Obama, only 20% negative on Romney.  Sample MSNBC and get the reverse.  Now by sampling a convex combination of the two population variables you can attain, as you wish, any level of negativity between 20 and 99% for either candidate.

    This kind of book-cooking is easy as pie.  It’s just a bit shocking to find Pew doing it.

  11. Lucy Pevensie
    wmartin: Bad news in Gallup. No bounce forming, and according to Frank Newport the last few  nights of polling have been strong for Obama. The more the public saw of our best guys, the more they supported Obama.

    I mainly blame this on the media tone, the relentless “fact-checking” nitpicks, etc. If the last few nights, which I thought were exceptional, can’t get around the media’s filter and move the polls, i don’t know what can. · 44 minutes ago

    I’m not James of England, but I can’t imagine that anyone can have done a  poll yet that would reflect the convention results.

  12. wmartin
    Lucy Pevensie

    I’m not James of England, but I can’t imagine that anyone can have done a  poll yet that would reflect the convention results. · 1 minute ago

    Gallup is a rolling track. I was referencing the director of Gallup, who says that Obama began ticking up in their daily poll when the RNC began. I think that is an extremely bad sign, although it is  possible it will change as we start getting days of polling conducted after the RNC’s  conclusion added to the 7-day average. But, if we were going to get a big bounce at all, we would almost certainly see the first signs of it already.

    One problem we have is that nobody watched it. The viewership numbers have been terrible, which makes the media’s spin on it even more important. That spin has been largely negative, and I have to think that it is having some effect.

  13. Duane Oyen

    The problem with this is that it completely neglects the spike, that is, what issues the media chooses to cover and what it buries. 

  14. Keith Rice

    Talk about taking it out of context.

    How much positive or supportive news is there about the respective candidates? How often is criticism negated by introducing mitigating factors (Bush’s fault)? How often do media figures “run interference” for their preferred candidate?

    Pew? I thought it was Phew!

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