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The Media's Pro- Anti-Obama Bias

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The notion that the media is biased in favor of Barack Obama has become an article of faith—at least among those people who have run campaigns against Barack Obama. Now there’s a new study that finds a definite Obama slant in campaign coverage—the other way.

A study of the first six weeks of the general-election campaign by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University finds that of the opinions given about Obama in network news coverage, 72% were negative, as opposed to 57% of those about McCain.

An LA Times article about the report also cites a Tyndall Report finding that Obama was far more heavily covered during roughly the same period (seven weeks rather than six), with 166 minutes on the evening news to 66 for McCain.

So: more coverage for Obama, and more of it negative. (I’ll admit being a little skeptical, by the way, about any study that tries to quantify something like “negative” and “positive” statements, though the Times article goes into more detail about how the researchers made the call.) Does this prove that the media is for him? Against him? To my way of thinking (and I say this as an admitted Obama voter), it’s another example of what I wrote last week: that matters of “bias” are usually more complicated than they’re made out to be. It’s not a matter of the media taking sides, or trying—concertedly or independently—to get one guy elected. Rather, it’s that the press will establish different narratives for each candidate, and tailor its coverage to fit those existing narratives.

In this case, any of the following factors might be at work:

* The new guy is a bigger story
* The new guy, doing things like making his first high-profile tour overseas, draws more “Will he fail?” stories
* The guy who’s drawing a bigger audience (i.e., selling magazine covers, dominating Internet searches, etc.) gets more airtime
* The press, hammered for months for being “in the tank” for Obama, picks up negative analyses to compensate
* Political reporting is biased toward close-race narratives, and thus goes harder on the candidate leading in the polls
* For the same reason, the frontrunner generates more “Is he slipping?”, “Why can’t he close the deal?” stories
* The press simplistically associates more negative coverage with more substantive coverage

There are far more, I’m sure, but the bottom line is that there are far more reasons than simple cheerleading for the press to treat two candidates differently: some legitimate, some not, but either way, they’re more complicated than who’s in whose tank and who’s eating whose barbecue.

Update: At Swampland, Ana Marie Cox, who used to work at CMPR, examines the study and points out the problems with quantifying something like “positive” and “negative” coverage:

What’s more, studies such as this one have no way of measuring how any one biased statement builds up or chips away at existing media narratives, or of weighing the relative harm various kinds of criticism might inflict. Let’s say that every single one of the negative statement about Obama was along the lines of “He’s un-American,” whereas the statements about McCain were more varied and more superficial: “He’s old,” “He’s stubborn,” “He’s like Bush.”

Wouldn’t that make the coverage of Obama infinitely more damaging? Or at least much more than 12 percent more damaging?

That’s not exactly how things have played out, of course. But the hypothetical illustrates the limits of attempts to quantify bias…