Analysts who wonder why Americans are so down on politics can begin the discussion by looking at media coverage. Post-election research demonstrates the mainstream media presented the presidential campaign through a negative lens. It is little wonder that people get weary of politics and that voter turnout in 2012 was lower than expected. News coverage was certainly not portrayed as a celebration of democracy in action.
A study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed campaign coverage from the major broadcast outlets, newspapers and websites. Some 2,500 stories were assessed and coded. The overall tone of news stories was negative for both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. From the beginning of the conventions through Oct. 21, both candidates received more negatively toned stories than positive.
According to the Pew study, however, news coverage took a pronounced turn during the final week of the campaign, when Obama benefited from more stories with a positive tone compared to negative. Romney’s coverage remained negative overall, with the GOP nominee receiving almost twice as many negatively toned stories during the final week than positive. In addition, the president was a significant presence in 80 percent of campaign stories in the week before the election, while Romney was in only 62 percent of campaign news. The effect of Hurricane Sandy explained part of that difference as the president’s disaster response was celebrated by most press accounts.
The presidential debates, as usual, didn’t figure largely into the election outcome. Although Romney’s performance in the first debate was viewed positively by viewers and reporters alike, the impact soon faded and the subsequent two debates became insignificant as general campaign noise. Pew research indicated that follow-up news of the debates focused heavily on which candidate “won,” rather than on issues.
The 2012 debates will be remembered more for how the journalist/moderators behaved than for how the presidential candidates performed. Jim Lehrer of PBS received much criticism from pundits for letting Obama and Romney too often sort things out for themselves. CNN’s Candy Crowley caught flak before the debates for indicating she would be an active moderator, and then caught more after the debates for following through on her promise to be a referee.
Research by Rasmussen Reports shows that 42 percent of voters thought the moderators tried to help Obama during the debates, and only 3 percent thought the moderators helped Romney. The Commission on Presidential Debates should use the 2012 experience to design a format that removes journalists from the stage altogether.
While politics is a rough-and-tumble process, the nation suffers from media coverage that exudes a negative tone. Citizens tire of the verbal brickbats and angry rhetoric. It is one thing to have candidates and their political action committees firing off cheap shots and unfair labels through paid advertising, but to have news accounts become the echo chamber of such divisive verbal blasts is unnecessary. Too often the news coverage of the campaign merely parroted dueling campaign attacks that labeled Romney the cold-hearted corporate liar and Obama the socialist economic divider.
Television news was particularly guilty of shallow and formulaic reporting, relying on templates that showed image-manipulated campaign rallies and candidates blasting each other with one-liners.
Pew analysis showed almost half of all news accounts focused on the horse race coverage of the polls as the campaign wound down.
Sadly, negative coverage gave Americans a demoralizing headache. There was too little news substance regarding the major issues. The executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, Mike Cavender, explained away the media’s lack of reporting substance by writing, “. . . the fact is that much of the public has only a fleeting interest in issue stories.” Such an excuse for media underperformance demonstrates a lack of confidence in the public’s intelligence. Further, it overlooks the cold fact that journalists themselves set the reporting agenda, not the public.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University and author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.