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.