August 23, 2012

The Master Character Narratives in Campaign 2012

Press Release

CONTACT: PEJ Director Tom Rosenstiel or Associate Director Mark Jurkowitz at 202.419.3650

PEJ: Press Coverage of the Character of the Candidates is Highly Negative and Neither Obama nor Romney Has an Edge

August 23, 2012-The portrayal in the news media of the character of the two presidential candidates in 2012 has been as negative as any campaign in recent times, and neither President Barack Obama nor Governor Mitt Romney has enjoyed an advantage over the other, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The study, which examines the "master narratives" in the press about the candidates’ character traits and records, finds that 72% of the Obama narrative, and 71% of the Romney narrative, has been negative. That makes this as negative as any campaign studied since PEJ began monitoring the master narratives in the press coverage of presidential campaigns in 2000. Only the 2004 race, shaped by the war Iraq and the Swift boat controversy, was comparable.

Just as telling, the press itself is a shrinking source of the master narratives about the candidates, and the campaigns are a growing source. Since 2000, the percentage of assertions about the candidates coming from journalists has dropped by almost half-from 50% to 27%. And the percentage of what the public hears coming from the campaigns and their allies has grown from 37% to 48%.

"The American news media in its coverage of the candidates appears increasingly to be a conduit of partisan rhetoric and less a source than it once was of independent reporting," said PEJ Director Tom Rosenstiel. "This may reflect the impact of shrinking newsrooms. But it probably also helps explain why the campaign feels so negative."

The No. 1 narrative about President Obama in the media is that his economic policies have failed. Fully 36% of the statements about his character and record make that case-more than twice the number (16%) that suggests he has helped the economy.

On the other side, the No. 1 narrative abut Romney is that he is a "vulture" capitalist who doesn’t care about workers, which accounted for 14% of the statements about his character, followed closely by the idea that he is a wealth elitist (13%). 

"As the candidates try to re-introduce themselves to voters, the study shows that the press has delivered these voters a remarkably negative story for both Obama and Romney," said PEJ associate director Mark Jurkowitz. "The negative theme about Obama’s economic record is winning out right now; at the same time, so is the argument that Mitt Romney is a callous business man and a wealthy elitist."

These are among the findings from the report, which identified and examined the most prevalent narratives involving each candidate’s character and record during a 10-week period, from May 29 through August 5. In all, five of the six most prevalent master narratives in the press about Obama’s character and record were negative in nature, and five of the six most prevalent themes about Romney were negative. The study analyzed more than 1,772 assessments of the candidates’ character and record contained in more than 800 stories from 50 major news outlets. This is the fourth presidential campaign in which PEJ has measured the master narratives in the press about candidates.

The study is not an analysis of media bias; rather, as it has for four campaign cycles, PEJ is examining what the public is hearing and reading from all sources in the mainstream media-from the campaigns, journalists, outside analysts and others.

Among the findings of the study:

  • Half of all assertions about Obama that were studied focused on whether his administration has helped fix the recession or made it worse. And most of this coverage (36% of all the assertions about Obama) suggested that the president has failed to do enough. That was more than twice the percentage of the counter-argument-that the economy would be weaker had it not been for the administration’s actions-which made up 16% of the assertions about Obama.
  • The media narrative about Romney includes a number of sizable and varied negative themes. The largest-that he is a callous "vulture" capitalist-made up 14% of the assertions about Romney. The idea that he was a rich elitist was almost as large (13%). The idea that he was a weak, gaffe-prone campaigner was also substantial (11%). So was the idea that his policies would hurt the economy (10%).
  • Campaigns have an even bigger voice in shaping the narrative online. On the 12 most prominent news websites in the country, campaigns and surrogates are behind 58% of statements studied about the record and character of the candidates-the highest of any medium. Outside experts have the smallest presence in the coverage online, making up just 2% of statements (versus 10% generally). The top political stories online tend to be breaking news, and this orientation may account for the larger role that partisans play here in shaping the narrative. Candidates and their allies put a premium on rapid response to ensure that their messaging is available in the early accounts of any news.
  • What is not being projected in the coverage is also striking-namely the positive arguments the candidates want to convey. Just 3% of assertions about Obama contain the idea that he cares about regular Americans-a major theme in his advertising and his digital messaging. For Romney, there were more assertions refuting one of his central campaign themes-that he has the experience to fix the economy (10%)-than there were affirming the idea (8%).
  • In cable television, Fox’s and MSNBC’s coverage of the candidates’ character themes are mirror images of each other. Fox has offered a mixed view of Romney, but its assessments of Obama’s record and character have run negative by a measure of six to one. The numbers are almost identical, in reverse, for MSNBC. Meanwhile, CNN has offered less about the campaign in general, but its coverage tends to resemble what audiences would find in the rest of the media.

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The Project for Excellence in Journalism tracks the transformation of journalism in a changing information landscape through its annual State of the News Media report and a series of special reports. As part of the nonpartisan, non-advocacy Pew Research Center, it does not take positions on policy issues.