2012 media bias by the numbers

News media bias is an issue without dispute. Reporters and editors are people, affected by laws and regulations, just like everyone else. They have preferences, just like everyone else. So when it comes to reportage, even the best of the best in the news media hint at, through omission or editing or phrasing, preferential coverage.

In 2008, the best of the news media were nowhere to be seen. The overwhelming preference of news media organizations was, to different but obvious degrees, in the bag for then-Senator Obama. There was the NY Times refusal (until embarrassed by other media coverage of the snub) to publish Sen. John McCain’s Op-Ed article,

“…the Times’ suggestions are tantamount to insisting that he change his position in order to get his opinions published.”

Time magazine’s Mark Halperin, at the Politico/USC conference on the 2008 election, stated

“It’s the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq war. It was extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage”

Even Los Angeles Times writer Mark Barabak, also at the Politico/USC conference, stated

“I think it’s incumbent upon people in our business to make sure that we’re being fair. The daily output was the most disparate of any campaign I’ve ever covered, by far.”

The final nails in the coffin were the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism report on the 2008 election“The media coverage of the race for president has not so much cast Barack Obama in a favorable light as it has portrayed John McCain in a substantially negative one. – and the admission by Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell

“The Post provided a lot of good campaign coverage, but readers have been consistently critical of the lack of probing issues coverage and what they saw as a tilt toward Democrat Barack Obama. My surveys, which ended on Election Day, show that they are right on both counts.”

Which brings us to 2012. Given the mainstream media preference and investment in President Obama, how did they do in giving the public an honest understanding of the candidates?

First we will clarify what is meant by “investment”. In 2008 the mainstream media, by omission and by tone and style of coverage, picked a candidate. That had a real cost in worker’s salaries, advertisements gained and lost, and the amount that could be charged for that advertisement. Such actions also directly influence readership/viewership, some gained and lost, which again goes to the bottom-line of profitability. The outpouring of manpower and selective stories without a known benefit (who would win the election) is in our estimate an investment. What the expected return for that investment might be is beyond our ability to determine at this time, but we will come back to this in our final thoughts.

We will also restate something we mentioned in 2008

“It is the purpose of the media to ask questions, tough questions, of the potential candidates. It is their purpose to inform the public of facts and comments of note by the candidates. It is the fact that they receive more attention and response than bloggers of most any size that we rely on them.”

With that said, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism report on the 2012 election showed a similar trend to that of 2008. One of the key findings in the report was that:

  • Network news viewers received a different narrative about the candidates depending on when they watched – In the evening, Obama fared better. His narrative was fairly evenly mixed. For Romney, negative exceeded positive by 17 points.
  • Debate coverage was more about who won than what candidates said – the debates became a frame about campaign momentum to a greater degree than the rest of the campaign. Coverage of foreign policy during this time, by contrast, fell by roughly half to 7%, as did coverage of the personal topics about the candidates, which fell to 1%.
  • The economy accounted for 10% of all campaign coverage studied, down from 15% four years earlier. Turmoil in the Middle East, particularly the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, was next-at 5%. Health care accounted for 1% of campaign coverage studied. Social issues were also notable for their absence. Together, abortion and gay rights, for instance, accounted for less than 1% of the coverage. So did the war in Afghanistan and the situation in Iraq.

    These are important items. It should be noted that President Obama (at 69%) and Mitt Romney (at 61%) received about the same amount of coverage. The critical thing is what coverage was provided. While both candidates were shown with negative coverage, especially via social media of which Twitter was the most negative for both candidates, coverage of Romney was 2x as negative as President Obama (23% versus 11%).

    But for as much negative coverage as there was for both candidates, the consistent message from the media was more negative for Romney than President Obama. In terms of the race in polls, coverage for Romney was 3 to 1 negative versus positive story coverage, even counting the boost from the first presidential debate. Domestic and foreign policy coverage – a low point for the Obama campaign, especially with the Benghazi scandal emerging at the time, was 3 to 1 negative yet for Romney it was 5 to 1 negative.

    Focusing on the cable network aspects of coverage there are the extremes of FOX News (leans right) and MSNBC (leans left) with CNN essential in the middle (center left). There is no question that FOX, essentially the only right leaning cable network, was very negative against President Obama. Fully 46% of news coverage was negative as opposed to the 12% negative coverage of Romney.

    MSNBC for its part was even worse in its own bias. Negative coverage of Romney was 71% of all coverage (1.55x more negative that FOX coverage of President Obama), while negative coverage of President Obama was 15%.

    CNN was the middle ground, so to speak. It presented 21% of its coverage of President Obama which was negative. This compares to the 36% negative coverage of Romney. While far more balanced that either FOX or MSNBC, again there was a preference that made a clear impression for viewers.

    Perhaps most glaring of the examples of bias by the cable news networks was the coverage in the last week. While both extremes made an even stronger emphasis on their candidates of preference, the most absolute bias came from MSNBC – as can be seen in this chart from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

    Cable News coverage - the extremes

    As for network television the bias was far more apparent in the time slots as opposed to overall coverage. While the coverage was similar for both candidates (43% of coverage for or against President Obama, versus 48.5% similar coverage of Romney) the time in which viewers saw the coverage made a difference.

    In the first half-hour of morning programs (roughly 7am) Romney received 7% less negative coverage – roughly getting equal positive and negative coverage – as opposed to the 2 to 1 negative coverage of President Obama (30% vs 13%). But in the evening, where the majority of viewers watch network television and news, the coverage was almost a mirror image of the morning. President Obama received a 3% boost in positive coverage while Romney got a 2 to 1 negative coverage (33% versus 16% positive) when networks received the most viewership.

    In addition, overall ABC News was the most positive for President Obama (27% of coverage). More striking though was the fact that all network coverage (ABC, CBS, NBC) were virtually equal in negative coverage of Romney (33%, 29% and 29% respective).

    We add that perhaps the most striking display of the above bias from network television was from CBS, in their 60 Minutes interview with President Obama that omitted key relevant and potentially elections shaping video. As we said at the time

    “Releasing the full edit of the missing 60 Minutes interview, late in the evening the day before the election, without any press release or public announcement, is an attempt to slip something past the American public. It allows CBS to say they did their constitutionally protected duty, without dampening the prospects of their political favorite.”

    What may be a surprise, and bucks the trend above, is the coverage newspapers gave to the candidates. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney received similar amounts of positive newspaper coverage (12% vs 19%), which was a 300% increase in positive coverage for the Republican challenger versus 2008. Negative coverage also was about equal with 18% for President Obama and 16% for Romney, a decrease in negative coverage for the Republican by 77% versus 2008.

    Online coverage was similar to cable and television. Positive coverage for President Obama increased 12% (negative decreased 3%) versus 2008. For Romney the positive coverage increased 5% with negative coverage decreasing 23% versus 2008 coverage. Still President Obama received almost 50% more positive coverage (25% to 14% respective) with Romney getting about 1.35x more negative coverage (33% Obama vs. 44% Romney).

    Overall, it can be seen that while the rampant bias of the 2008 election was not present in 2012 there was still significant bias on the part of the mainstream media and social media. In almost every metric preference was displayed, if not in positive coverage for President Obama then in the emphasis of negative coverage against Mitt Romney.

    We note that this is not the same thing as coverage comparing candidates. This is not about the weaknesses or strength of any particular candidate. That would be a neutral coverage – ideally what the news media is supposed to do. What occurred in 2008, and to a somewhat lesser degree in 2012 was the picking of a winner, and a near systemic guidance by the news media industry leading voters. Unlike 2008, where the message was to vote for then-Senator Obama, the message in 2012 was to vote against Mitt Romney.

    Which leaves us a final set of questions. What does the news media expect to gain from such a demonstrable display of bias? How is this preference affecting coverage of the Administration throughout the term(s)? Is the current polarization of politics, in part, fueled by the partisan expectations of the mainstream media? What does the American public lose if the news media cannot, through partisanship and preference, ask tough questions and be the watchdog of politics as it was originally intended to be?

  • About the Author

    Michael Vass
    Born in 1968, a political commentator for over a decade. Has traveled the U.S. and lived in Moscow and Tsblisi, A former stockbroker and 2014 Congressional candidate. Passionate about politics with emphasis on 1st and 2nd Amendments.

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