A Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism study finds that on the eve of the conventions, the portrayal in the traditional news media of the character and records of the two presidential contenders in 2012 has been as negative as any campaign in recent times, and neither candidate has enjoyed an advantage over the other, according to Pew's study of mainstream media coverage of the race for president.
More of what the public hears about candidates also now comes from the campaigns themselves and less from journalists acting as independent reporters or interpreters of who the candidates are. (How the campaigns are using digital tools to talk directly with voters.)
An examination of the dominant or master narratives in the press about the character and record of presidential contenders finds that 72% of this coverage has been negative for Barack Obama and 71% has been negative for Mitt Romney.
The study, conducted by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, examined the personal portrayal of the candidate in 50 major news outlets over a 10-week period.
These numbers make this as negative a campaign as PEJ has seen since it began monitoring the master narratives about candidates in press coverage in presidential campaigns in 2000.
Only one campaign has been comparable-2004 when coverage was filled with the controversy over the war in Iraq, the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib and the Swift Boat documentaries. That year, 70% of the personal narrative studied about Democrat John Kerry and 75% of that about incumbent George Bush was negative, numbers similar to now.
Journalists themselves now play a smaller role in shaping these media narratives than they once did. Journalists are the source for about half as much of the statements about the candidates as was the case 12 years go. The campaigns, by contrast, have come to play an ever larger role in shaping these narratives.
The candidates and their partisan allies [using the spectrum Internet communication channels] are the source for nearly a third more of the personal narrative about the candidates than in 2000.
On the eve of the nominating conventions, the discussion of President Obama in major mainstream news outlets is dominated by two narratives assessing his economic record-that his policies have
- failed to help the economy, and
- that things would be much worse without his actions.
Together these two narratives on Pres. Obama make up half of all the statements about his record and character. The negative side of these arguments outweighs the positive in traditional media coverage by more than two to one. The next biggest personal narrative about Obama in the mainstream news media is one that raises doubts about whether the president really believes in American capitalism and ideas of individualism.
On the Republican side, the No. 1 personal narrative about Romney is that his experience in private equity suggests he is a "vulture" capitalist who doesn't care about workers, followed closely by the idea that he is an elitist out of touch with average Americans. The third-biggest personal narrative in the media about Romney is that he is a gaffe-prone, awkward campaigner.
Only some of these narratives, however, seem to be sticking with voters-at least so far. While much of the press narrative has suggested Obama has the wrong approach to fixing the economy, voters are split on whether to associate that notion with Obama or Romney. They are also divided on which candidate believes in American values (though Obama's ideals are questioned more often in the press). The two personal narrative themes that appear to be breaking through to voters are Romney's elitism and his awkwardness on the stump.