A recent Politico story citing inconsistencies in news coverage about Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is once again raising questions about media bias and whether national news outlets are in the tank for the President. The specific target of Republican’s ire was last Sunday’s front-page New York Times story that, according to Politico, suggests that “the Romneys are silly rich, move in rarefied and exotic circles, and are perhaps a tad shady.” In response, the Atlantic’s James Fallows, citing a recent Pew study, (hat tip to Helen Hur for bringing this to my attention) argues that, if anything, the press has been far more critical of Obama than Romney this past year. As he writes “At no time in the past year has coverage of President Obama been as positive as that of Governor Romney. Indeed, at no time in the past year has it been on-balance positive at all.” And, in fact, the ongoing Pew Study of media coverage does show that the tone of Obama’s news coverage has been predominantly negative – more so than the coverage Romney has received. As the following table based on the Pew data shows, although Romney has endured mostly negative coverage during the campaign, it has turned positive since he basically clinched the nomination in March. In contrast, Obama’s coverage has been consistently negative since at least last July. (Obama data in blue, Romney in red; negative coverage represented by the dotted line, positive by the solid line.)
Readers will recall that this is a sharp reversal from the 2008 campaign, when Pew found Obama getting generally favorable coverage, particularly in comparison to John McCain and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton. So, if we accept the Pew findings (and not everyone does) what are we to make of this seeming reversal in media tone?
I’ve written extensively about Obama and news bias in the past. Rather than rehash those posts, let me issue a few simple reminders when discussing this topic. First, we need to distinguish the tone of coverage from the political views of national news journalists who are doing the reporting. National journalists are more liberal, in the aggregate, than the population as a whole. But that doesn’t mean their coverage is politically biased. Second, we need to define what we mean by media. Critics carping about Fox’s conservative slant often lump the talk shows by Sean Hannity and Greta Susteren in with their regular news coverage hosted by Shepherd Smith. However, the two are different types of media. Similarly, talk radio is dominated by conservative hosts far more than is cable television. Third, discussions of bias often presume that the ideal is “nonbiased” coverage. But what does that mean? Look at the chart above – what it doesn’t show is the amount of “neutral” coverage – that is, coverage that Pew argues is neither negative nor positive in tone. To calculate that total, add the percent of negative and positive stories together, and subtract from 100. You will see that in many months a plurality of news stories is neutral in tone.
However, not everyone would agree that “neutral” coverage is non-biased. For example, when shown evidence that Obama received more favorable coverage than McCain in 2008, many Obama supporters argue that Obama was the stronger candidate who was leading in the polls and was likely to win the election. Hence he should have received more favorable coverage, since he was running a better campaign. That may be true. But I suspect those individuals who believed Obama deserved favorable coverage in 2008 are not now going to accept the premise that his predominantly negative coverage is justified because he’s been a bad president. More generally, it is not clear what the preferred alternative to “biased’ coverage is, or if there can even be “nonbiased” coverage. Should it be “balanced”? “Neutral”? An accurate reflection of “reality”? At the very least, critics needs to specify what that preferred alternative is.
With these cautions in mind, what explains Obama’s largely negative numbers as reflected in the Pew chart? In part, they are a function of timing. Remember, the Pew researchers caution that their “research on the tone in news coverage is not a study of media fairness or bias.” As they explain, Pew’s “research examines and quantifies all the assertions about a candidate in news coverage. When a candidate is widely criticized by rivals, for instance, Americans are hearing negative statements about that candidate. When a candidate begins to surge in the polls, and his or her candidacy begins to look more viable, Americans are receiving positive statements about that candidate.”
Given this coding methodology, we don’t need to search for hidden bias among reporters to explain the predominantly negative tone of Obama’s coverage during the last year. Rather than media bias, it is far more likely to be driven by campaign-related statements made by Obama’s Republican rivals, which are dutifully reported by the media. Given this dynamic, it is hardly surprising that a President who has been targeted by multiple Republican candidates during the current campaign cycle is receiving generally negative press.
But I don’t think all of the negative coverage reflects the media reporting criticisms by Republicans. Some is attributable to the structural bias that drives media coverage. By structural bias, I mean how the media shapes coverage in a way designed to attract an audience and make a profit. One aspect of this structural bias is a tendency to simplify and personalize issues. We saw both traits on acute display this past weekend, as the media covered the story of anemic job growth and revised GDP figures that collectively suggest that economic growth is slowing once more. For the most part, journalists tended to discuss these dismal economic numbers as if they were a reflection of Obama’s leadership – or lack thereof. But this is a highly dubious proposition – something I’ll address more fully in my next post.