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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.
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