News Cycle

A look at the news, politics and journalism in today’s 24-hour media.

Balanced Media? Pew Center Funded Study Say No Way This Election Year

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The perception in the real world is that the mainstream media has been overly kind to Sen. Barack Obama and unduly harsh on Sen. John McCain this election year. Now there is a study by the The Project for Excellence in Journalism, funded by the Pew Research Center, that seems to back that up.

The study reports:

Press treatment of Obama has been somewhat more positive than negative, but not markedly so.

But coverage of McCain has been heavily unfavorable—and has become more so over time. In the six weeks following the conventions through the final debate, unfavorable stories about McCain outweighed favorable ones by a factor of more than three to one—the most unfavorable of all four candidates—according to the study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

For Obama during this period, just over a third of the stories were clearly positive in tone (36%), while a similar number (35%) were neutral or mixed. A smaller number (29%) were negative.

For McCain, by comparison, nearly six in ten of the stories studied were decidedly negative in nature (57%), while fewer than two in ten (14%) were positive.

John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei wrote in Politico today about their personal observations:

Politico political editor Charles Mahtesian was e-mailing the other day with a Republican lobbyist who signed off with a plea that sounded more like a taunt: “Keep it balanced.”

A reader e-mailed us with the same sentiment in different language. “Are you f***ing joking! Your bias has stooped to an all-time low. Wait, it will probably get worse as election day nears.” Those asterisks, by the way, are hers, not ours.

And get a load of this one, from someone in Rochester, N.Y., who did not like our analysis of the final presidential debate. “You guys are awfully tough on McCain. There may be some legitimacy to the claim of press bias. Mom.”

We were all set to dismiss Harris’ mother as a crank. Same for VandeHei’s: a conservative dismayed by what she sees as kid-glove treatment of Barack Obama. Then along came a study — funded by the prestigious Pew Research Center, no less — suggesting at first blush, at least, that they may be on to something.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s researchers found that John McCain, over the six weeks since the Republican convention
, got four times as many negative stories as positive ones. The study found six out of 10 McCain stories were negative.

What’s more, Obama had more than twice as many positive stories (36 percent) as McCain — and just half the percentage of negative (29 percent).

You call that balanced?

Later in the story, the writers justify Politico’s reporting by saying that Obama is doing better, so he should be getting better coverage.

There have been moments in the general election when the one-sidedness of our site — when nearly every story was some variation on how poorly McCain was doing or how well Barack Obama was faring — has made us cringe.

As it happens, McCain’s campaign is going quite poorly and Obama’s is going well. Imposing artificial balance on this reality would be a bias of its own.

Politico was not included in the Pew study. But our researcher Alex Burns pulled out his highlighter pen and did his own study of Politico’s October stories last week: 110 stories advanced a narrative that was more favorable to Obama than McCain. Sixty-nine did the opposite.

But isn’t that a chicken-and-the-egg argument? Did Obama rise in the polls in October because of all the positive press or did he get all the positive press because of his rise in the polls?


Written by newscycle

October 28, 2008 at 11:11 am

Posted in Pew Center, Politico

One Response

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  1. The whole notion of a “balanced media” misses the point of honest coverage. The media’s function is not to maintain a proportion of positive and negative tallying for respective candidates.

    The candidates have had ample opportunities to make their cases to the public and present their characterizations of their opponents. However, the candidate more prone to distortion, fear-mongering, and hyperbole has been rightly called on it–not even every time, but often enough for the McCain campaign to use it as an issue. It’s the same campaign that expects “deference” if you recall.

    The McCain campaign has been crying foul ever since Governor Palin demonstrated how incompetent she is. When Campbell Brown asks Tucker Bounds to name one example of Palin’s actions as head of Alsaka National Guard, does the fact that he has no answer make the story a negative one for McCain?

    The fact is that McCain has run the most embarrassingly crass campaign I’ve ever seen. The media should be running more negative stories about him because his campaign isn’t being honest at every level. McCain mentions in two debates about earmarks for a $3 million dollar “overhead projector” when it’s a planetarium projector. He slams ACORN for massive voter fraud when it’s just a few isolated instances of lazy employees writing in names of registrants who can’t possibly even vote. They claim Obama doesn’t go to church, then he’s under the spell of a hateful Christian minister, then a Muslim, therefore a terrorist, then an elitist (for eloquence is more elitist than owning 8 houses apparently), then socialist (never mind that socialism is defined by public ownership of production, not raising taxes 3%). I can go on and on, but with so many examples of McCain twisting the discourse away from issues, it’s no wonder there are a more proportionate share of negative stories about him.

    A new AP article is now being circulated.
    The story “Study: Media coverage has favored Obama campaign” fails to mention that the Center for Media and Public Affairs, cited as the
    source of the study, according to, has [their] seed money…solicited
    by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson”.
    According to wikipedia:
    [between 1986 and 2005], out of the total of $2,960,916 in foundation grants,
    nearly all of it ($2,668,916) came from just four sources: the John M. Olin,
    Scaife, and Smith Richardson foundations. In other words, CMPA received 86% of
    its foundation funding from those four donors. Here is a sample of other
    right-wing causes funded by these 3 donors, as listed by their respective
    SourceWatch articles:
    John M. Olin Foundation – American Enterprise Institute, Project for the New
    American Century
    Scaife Foundations – American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation
    Smith Richardson Foundation – American Enterprise Institute, Hudson Institute.

    It’s all just a ‘blame the media’ tactic.

    post-reality syndrome

    November 1, 2008 at 6:00 am

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