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Study: No, the mainstream media wasn’t biased… except for the last week of the campaign

Debate moderator Candy Crowley speaks to the audience before the start of the second U.S. presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012.   REUTERS/Win McNamee/Pool

Debate moderator Candy Crowley speaks to the audience before the start of the second U.S. presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012. REUTERS/Win McNamee/Pool

Despite cries of mainstream media bias, it turns out that coverage was broadly the same for both presidential candidates this year, except for the final week of the campaign (more on that in a minute). From the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (emphasis added):

Throughout most of the general campaign period, President Obama received slightly better coverage in the mainstream press than Governor Romney did. An earlier PEJ report showed that from August 27 to October 21, 19% of stories about Obama were clearly favorable in tone while 30% were unfavorable and 51% were mixed. For Romney, 15% of the stories were favorable, while 38% were unfavorable and 47% were mixed-a differential toward negative stories of 23 points.

However, most of the difference during that period could be accounted for by the horse-race stories, which generally showed Obama with small leads in important state and national polls. If those horse-race stories were removed from the sample, the coverage of the two candidates became quite similar-15% of the remaining campaign stories about Obama were positive, 32% were negative and 53% were mixed. For Romney it was 14% positive, 32% negative and 55% mixed.

So on the whole, the mainstream press treated both candidates about equally. The question of why both candidates received twice as many negative stories as positive stories is one for another day.

But something happened during the campaign’s final week:

Then, in the final week (October 29 to November 5), a noticeable change occurred: Obama’s coverage improved dramatically while Romney’s coverage stayed about the same but shrank in volume.

During that final week, 29% of the stories about the president were positive and 19% were negative, an extremely dramatic reversal from the norm of the previous months. Romney stayed about the same at 16% positive, 33% negative.

Not only did the press get nicer to Obama in the final week, they also talked about him more—a lot more. During the majority of the campaign, Obama was a “significant presence” (aka he was in 25% of the story or more) in 75% of the campaign-related coverage compared to 71% for Romney. But during the final week he became a significant presence in 80% of the coverage and Romney dropped to just 62%.

What explains this change? The obvious answer is Hurricane Sandy, which gave Obama an opportunity to look presidential. Moreover, the devastating storm naturally ate up media oxygen, helping explain why coverage of Romney dropped so dramatically. Additionally, the proportion of horse-race stories increased dramatically during the final week, and since polling showed President Obama ahead, he received more positive press than usual.

So there was no great media conspiracy to get Barack Obama reelected. Even the final week’s clear pro-Obama slant can be reasonably explained by extenuating circumstances, particularly the hurricane (incidentally, this also helps explain why late deciders bucked history by breaking for Obama).

Now, none of this is to say that individual media outlets were not biased: Take a look at the chart below which compares Fox News and MSNBC’s coverage during the campaign’s final week:

Cries of media bias will, of course, continue. But those cries would be better directed at specific outlets rather than the media as a whole.

6 thoughts on “Study: No, the mainstream media wasn’t biased… except for the last week of the campaign

  1. re: did you happen to listen to FAUX News the last week in the campaign – which bills itself as the most watched media channel – not counting talk radio and folks like Limbaugh, Hannity and others.

    would you not agree that Faux and talk radio are major media players these days?

    why do we keep saying MSM as if it were monolithic when the evidence shows a large presence of the right wing media?

    • Larry I do not understand why you use the term “Faux” they do have prime time news shows that actually report news just like CNN and I can honestly say they seem pretty fair and balanced as fox puts it. CNN on the other hand has a SLIGHT tilt to the left but for news reporting I would have to say they are still moderate. Then we have opinion shows which Fox blantatly puts out as “OPINION” in online stories or saying an opinion talk show is coming up, whereas it seems in my opinion that other stations try to portay them as fact and push it instead of putting out there as opinion. Just my opinion of the methodology of how they put it out there. Both opinion shows are very leaning though.

      • ” the term “Faux” they do have prime time news shows that actually report news just like CNN and I can honestly say they seem pretty fair and balanced as fox puts it.”

        really? Have you listend to Hannity and O’Reilly? Hannity is 5 times as bad but neither of them “report” the “news” – they admit that – they’re totally commentary.

  2. I watch FOX and MSN and CNN as well as Fox News Sunday , Meet the Press and a couple others.

    I watch O”Reilly, Hanity, Greta, Maddow and Mathews but not “ED” but do watch Morning Joe.

    My view is that there is quite a diverse media and FOX and Talk Radio are major players and the viewership numbers show they outdraw other media in prime time.

    FOX News, especially has a steady stream of GOP elected and Party folks every night.

    I consider Fox News Sunday to be the least biased of the shows although it leans right.

    O’Reilly is a right wing buffoon who does not even realize how far right he leans.

    Hannity and Maddow make no bones about their views.

    Greta is .. in my view .. a bit naive… she tries to ask tough questions and sometimes succeeds but the partisan folks know how to deal with her.

    When I look at Greta and Chris Wallace, Wallace strikes me as totally in tune with the issues and asks tough questions – and follows up if they evade. Greta tries but gets easily pushed off course.

    if you listen to some folks -it’s like the main stream media “rules”

    I do not buy it. Fox news plays a huge role in elections.

  3. Seems to me that a big turning point in the campaign was manufactured by the “brazenly biased” (as Liz Trotta said) Candy Crowley, who stopped Mitt Romney in his tracks during the second debate when he pointed out the lying of Obama re. the Benghazi terrorist attack, and wrongly supported Obama. Obama caught lying during the debate. That would have been a big deal if she hadn’t covered for Obama.
    “Mainstream” media has referred to NBC-ABC-CBS and the NY Times and Washington Post. Viewers of the three major networks…which don’t require a cable subscription…far outnumber FOX or MSNBC. Their bias, e.g. their covering for Obama re. Benghazi (CBS had the terrorist tapes on 9-12), was evident for months.

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