Media coverage of the presidential race has not always been glowing for Barack Obama, but it has clearly been negative for John McCain, according to a survey of newspapers, Internet and TV news outlets since the end of the national political conventions.
Slightly less than a third of the stories about Obama were negative, while more than a third were positive; about the same number were neutral or mixed. More than half of the stories about McCain cast him in a negative light, while fewer than two in 10 were positive, according to Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The media watchdog group assessed the tone of the campaign during the six crucial weeks from early September through the final presidential debate, examining 857 stories from 43 news outlets.
Although the authors said some observers would use the findings to argue that the major media have a pro-Obama bias, they said their data did not provide conclusive answers. They noted that coverage of Republicans and Democrats in this and other recent presidential elections seemed to have more to do with their success than with their party affiliation.
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The group's research in 2000 found, for example, that Democrat Al Gore got a level of negative coverage almost identical to the level Republican McCain is receiving this time. Coverage of George Bush that year was more positive than Gore's, but more negative than Obama's has been this time.
The findings present “a strong suggestion that winning in politics begat winning coverage,” the Washington-based group found. “Obama's coverage was negative in tone when he was dropping in the polls, and became positive when he began to rise, and it was just so for McCain.”
The Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, saw her media coverage plummet from largely positive to largely negative over the six-week period, as reporters increasingly probed her record and mulled her sometimes bumpy television interviews.
Roughly two in five of the stories about the Alaska governor had a negative tone, while less than one-third were positive and one-third were neutral or mixed, the study found.
The findings seemed to debunk the notion spread by Palin backers that her negative coverage focused on personal and family issues – with only 5 percent of stories aimed at those topics.
“The invisible man” of the general election campaign has been Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, the review found, noting that he was the dominant figure in 6 percent or less of campaign coverage in each week studied – except the week he debated Palin. Other than relatively positive coverage of that lone debate, the Delaware senator's coverage was “far more negative than Palin's, and nearly as negative as McCain's.”