Pew Survey: Network News Coverage Favors Obama

Pew Research released a survey of 2012 media coverage Friday which shows the three major networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- are more favorable in their coverage of President Obama than Mitt Romney.

In its survey, Pew examined the media coverage of the two presidential candidates from August 27 to October 21 by the morning news shows -- ABC's Good Morning America, NBC's Today Show, and CBS This Morning -- and their evening news counterparts on the same networks. Morning shows' coverage (only the first half hour was considered) of Mitt Romney was positive 18% of the time and negative 27% of the time. Obama fared similarly with 13% positive and 30% negative. 

Coverage of both candidates on morning shows was negative overall, but Romney had a 1.5-to-1 ratio of negative to positive stories while Obama was 2.3-to-1. Removing so-called "horse race" coverage (stories concerned with the direction the election is going and the strategies of the two candidates) from consideration, Romney actually received more positive (26%) than negative (16%) stories, while the ratio of Obama's positive stories remained negative.

While Romney enjoyed slightly positive coverage on the morning news programs, the numbers shift dramatically if you look at the evening news shows. When combined, the coverage for ABC World News, NBC Nightly News, and CBS Evening News for Obama was positive 25% of the time and only negative 23% of the time, a roughly even split. By contrast, Romney's coverage was 2-to-1 negative, with 16% of the stories about him being positive to 33% negative.

Pew notes that removing the horse race coverage actually makes the split worse for Romney. Without these stories about who is winning and why, Obama's coverage goes to 27% positive and only 17% negative; Romney's barely budges at 17% positive to 25% negative. Evening news was negative about Romney by a 2-to-1 ratio when including horse race stories and 1.4-to-1 negative without them. Meanwhile, they were 1-to-1 on Obama with horse race coverage and 1.6-to-1 positive without it.

So morning news shows were "less negative" to "slightly positive" when covering Romney, while evening shows were "positive" to "very positive" for Obama. You might be inclined to think that's a wash overall, as the Pew report seems to suggest. What isn't being considered is that evening news programs get far higher viewership ratings than morning news programs.

Looking at recent ratings for all three morning news shows combined suggests they get a hair under 12 million daily viewers. In contrast, the evening news shows attract about 22 million viewers combined on average. The slight advantage Romney gets from positive morning coverage is overshadowed by the 2-to-1 negative coverage he gets on shows averaging twice as many viewers.

It's also worth noting that the morning shows are 2 hours long. At least some of those 12 million daily viewers are tuning in for segments featuring celebrities or early morning weather reports, not for political news. Conversely, the evening shows are only 30 minutes long and are drawing an audience purely looking for hard news.

It's encouraging that Romney received some positive coverage from morning shows, but it doesn't change the fact that the core of the network news media, the evening broadcasts, were still 2-to-1 negative on Romney even as they were mildly positive for Obama. Removing horse race stories from the mix makes the evening shows less negative toward Romney (1.5-to-1) but even more positive for Obama.


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