There seems to be a lot of attention to a new study from the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) study that finds Barack Obama to be much more harshly covered than the Republicans competing to run against him this fall.
"Obama Has Received Least Favorable News Coverage So Far During 2012 Election Cycle" reads the headline at Think Progress (4/23/12). At the Daily Beast, Howard Kurtz writes, "During the bruising Republican primaries, there was one candidate whose coverage was more relentlessly negative than the rest"–that candidate, it turns out, is Barack Obama.
A study like this is a handy counter-argument to bogus right-wing complaints about liberal media bias. But that doesn't mean the study says what people think it does.
We've been through this before–last October saw the same group issue a very similar study. As we pointed out then, a study that attempts to measure the "tone" of political coverage is bound to have some problems. Events in the real world can be coded as "positive" or "negative" for the sake of the study, which translates into "positive" or "negative" coverage. When people read that media coverage was "negative," that sure sounds like a judgment on the way the press covered a particular story or candidate. That could be the case, or it could be that the news–high unemployment, or a Supreme Court challenge to a law–isn't generally favorable.
The previous study explained that a report about Romney's lead in a poll was coded as "positive." But that doesn't mean the media is rooting for that finding, any more so than a report that explains the collapse of Newt Gingrich's campaign could be construed as anti-Gingrich media bias.
Indeed, Kurtz's article has PEJ associate director Mark Jurkowitz saying, "Day in and day out, he was criticized by the entire Republican field on a variety of policies." Which means that the press is covering a Republican election cycle where the candidates are all saying critical things about Barack Obama.
There are plenty of problems with that kind of coverage, especially when the press fails to factcheck those claims. But the presence of criticism or bad news shouldn't be confused with bias.
More useful than the positive-negative evaluation is the study's look at substance. Kurtz writes:
How substantive is the media's approach to the 2012 race? From November through mid-April, the horse race won by several lengths.
Sixty-four percent of the media attention was framed around polls, advertising, fundraising, strategy and who was up or down. Another 12 percent focused on the candidates' personal backgrounds—families, religion, marriages and finances.
As for the candidates' stands on the issues, that accounted for a mere 11 percent of the coverage.
While findings like that aren't as likely to get as much attention, they provide a more damning assessment of the way media cover political campaigns.
P.S. You can use the same dubious methodology to reach the opposite conclusion–that's kind of the problem. Here's New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane's latest column (4/22/12):
According to a study by the media scholars Stephen J. Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter, the Times' coverage of the president's first year in office was significantly more favorable than its first-year coverage of three predecessors who also brought a new party to power in the White House: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.
Robert Lichter, of course, is the media scholar who determined that during the Gulf War, George H.W. Bush got as much negative coverage as Saddam Hussein. You should take all his evaluations of who's getting more or less bad press with an appropriate dose of salt.