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Media coverage of the 2012 election was fair and balanced after all

October 14, 2013

By John Sides

romneyscreenA majority of Americans distrust the media.  Scholarly assessments of the media are usually no better.  And these sentiments often reach fever pitch during a political campaign when the news media are accused of emphasizing trivia or being flat-out biased toward one candidate.

In “The Gamble,” Lynn Vavreck’s and my new book on the 2012 presidential campaign, we have a lot to say about what, and how, the media did in covering the campaign.   This is one unique feature about our book, compared to the campaign books written by journalists.  We make the media a central character — an actor in the process, not just an observer.  We do this with data on 11,000 different news outlets gathered by the company General Sentiment, which gauged not only how often the candidates were mentioned but how positive or negative that coverage was.  Here is what we found:

1. In the Republican presidential primary, news coverage drove the candidates’ surges in the polls.

The ups and downs of the primary candidates were not “random.” They followed a consistent pattern.  A candidate who hadn’t previously received much coverage would do something that was judged noteworthy.  For Rick Perry, it was simply getting into the race.  For Herman Cain, it was a victory in the Florida straw poll.  For Newt Gingrich, it was the debates before the South Carolina primary.  For Rick Santorum, it was first his victory in the Iowa caucus and then his later victories in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.

In the wake of events like these, positive news coverage of the candidate shot up — a process we call “discovery.”  The poll numbers followed suit, as the statistical analyses in the book suggest.  We argue that this pattern is understandable — the news covers what is new, after all — but sometimes problematic.  The Florida straw poll was a meaningless event —  a “pseudo-event” — and yet it not only earned Cain coverage but often led media outlets to frame that coverage in a specific way: as a Cain victory over Perry.  “Cain Upsets Perry at Florida Straw Poll,” declared USA Today. “Cain Upsets Perry in Florida Republican Straw Poll,” declared Reuters. “Herman Cain Upsets Gov. Rick Perry to Win Florida GOP Straw Poll,” declared Fox News.  While journalists should report on the day’s events, the drive for newsworthy headlines sometimes elevated events whose significance was arguable at best.  (The same would be true with the focus on “gaffes” during the general election.)

2. In the primary, news coverage helped end these surges as well.

After their discovery, we show that front-running GOP candidates soon experienced significant scrutiny.  The media began to investigate their records, and this usually led to more negative news coverage — something that the opponents of the candidate being scrutinized were only to happy to facilitate.  One example of this was Politico’s storyabout the sexual harassment accusations against Herman Cain.  This scrutiny reflects positively on the news media because such coverage helps voters hold politicians accountable for their past deeds.  In Cain’s case, the effect of this scrutiny on voters’ opinions of him was clear.   Below is a graph from the book.  It shows the percentage of coverage of the Republican candidates that focused on Cain (gray line), that percentage multiplied by a measure of how positive or negative the coverage was (black line), and Cain’s national poll numbers (the dots).  The scrutiny is reflected in the shifting tone of coverage of Cain — the black line moving downward — even before the Politico story broke.

3. In the general election campaign, it was the other way around: the polls drove the news.

This isn’t surprising.  The polls in the general election campaign moved very little — mainly after the Democratic convention and the first debate.  Who “won” the news cycle simply didn’t matter that much.   That poll numbers drove news coverage is also unsurprising.  When news coverage focuses on the horse race, as it did in 2012, the candidate leading that race tends to look better in news coverage.  Meanwhile, the trailing candidate is treated to more stories about what is allegedly wrong with their campaign — like this one about the Romney campaign when it was trailing in mid-September.

4. Overall, media coverage of Obama and Romney was actually fair and balanced.  No, really.

This is the sort of statement that tends to make partisans on both sides irritable.  (Because of this.)  But when we examined General Sentiment’s measure of how positive or negative coverage of Obama and Romney was, neither candidate had a chronic advantage.  Read more at the Washington Post.

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