Romney, Obama narratives overwhelmingly negative as journalists lose control of campaign coverage

As the Republicans prepare for their four-day fiesta in Tampa introducing candidate Mitt Romney to the voting public, there is fresh evidence that he has plenty of negative impressions to overcome.

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has just released an analysis of “master narratives” in the media about both candidates, combined with a poll of public perceptions.

Media coverage of Romney has been 71 percent negative, the PEJ analysis found; President Obama beats him by 1 percent, with 72 percent of coverage negative. The report puts that in context:

Only once before has PEJ seen a race that was depicted as negatively, the 2004 contest between Bush and Kerry. That year 75% of the personal narrative studied about Bush was negative and 70% for Kerry, numbers quite similar to this year. Only in 2000 did we find a narrative about a single candidate substantially more negative than this year, Vice President Gore, whose personal narrative was 80% negative.

Master narratives

The negative coverage of Romney has focused on several themes.

Romney’s wealth has been the leading negative narrative.

On the more positive side, stories are at least split on whether he knows how to fix the economy and he is credited with running a well-organized campaign.

Several other themes important to the campaign’s presentation of candidate Romney have received minimal news coverage — that he is a good family man or can be considered a true conservative.

Turning to the public’s perception, the state of play for Romney headed into the convention is even worse. The report finds:

The attitudes of voters vary considerably this year with the portrayal of the candidates in the press. Overall, for instance, while the press coverage of record and biography is equally negative for the two candidates, in the view of voters, Obama fares more favorably when asked which characteristics people would associate with each contender.

Specifically Obama out-polls Romney in “good moral character” and “best experience to be a good leader.” He is also rated slightly higher in “believes in American values” and as much less likely to make mistakes when he speaks.

Obama’s biggest negative in media coverage, by far is “has not done enough for the economy” (36 percent of stories), followed by “does not believe in American exceptionalism and capitalism.” However several of the criticisms Romney and surrogates have been pushing have received minimal coverage — the ideas that the President has lost his magic, is divisive or is out of touch.

How much of this can Romney and convention planners turn around?

PEJ director Tom Rosenstiel said that is hard to predict. Candidate John Kerry had a good convention and a bounce in the polls, Rosenstiel said.  But ultimately he lost as President Bush’s re-election campaign was able to define Kerry as too liberal, a flip-flopper on issues and rich and out of touch.

In a very negative campaign like this one, having the second of the conventions is an advantage, Rosenstiel added. At September’s Democratic convention in Charlotte, Obama and other Democrats will have a timely forum to rebut positive impressions of Romney may have made from the week before and negative impressions of Obama.

Narratives about Obama focus more on his job performance than his personal characteristics.

Coverage by platform

Cable news and talk radio had the most imbalanced coverage of the candidates. PEJ found:

  • “…across conservative talk radio and cable talk programs, 7% of the character assertions about Obama were positive, compared with 93% that were negative over these 10 weeks.” For Romney, 38 percent of coverage was negative on the same programs, 62 percent was positive. On Fox News, Obama received 14 percent positive coverage, Romney received 44 percent.
  • “Virtually the same pattern is true if one looks at the universe of liberal radio and cable talk show programs. … 11% of the Romney character narrative was positive while 89% was negative.” For Obama, 64 percent was positive, 36 percent negative. On MSNBC, Obama received 54 percent positive coverage, Romney received 12 percent.
  • Newspapers covered both candidates virtually equally with 65 percent negative coverage for Obama and 66 percent for Romney.
  • Online coverage was also close, but favored Romney with 31 percent positive coverage for him compared to 24 percent for Obama.
  • On network news programs, there was a wider gap, with Obama receiving 42 percent favorable coverage and Romney receiving only 29 percent favorable coverage.

PEJ provides this illustration of how Fox News and MSNBC cover Romney and Obama.

Historical context

This is the fourth presidential cycle that PEJ has studied, and there appears to be a different dynamic for incumbent challenges like this year and 2004, compared to years when the office is open. As Obama has lost popularity for his handling of the economy, Bush was suffering from dissatisfaction with the course of the Iraq war. But both dwell on the case for not switching to an untested challenger.

Coverage of Bush was evenly split between positive and negative in 2000 (unlike the 80 percent negative coverage of Al Gore). By contrast nearly 70 percent of the coverage of Obama in 2008 was positive. The single biggest theme in coverage of Obama in 2008, that he was offering a new idealistic style of politics, has barely been mentioned this year.

The PEJ study, spanning 10 weeks from May to August, is based on analysis of the top stories on the morning and evening news, cable talk shows, the front pages of a half-dozen newspapers and the 12 best-trafficked websites.

Each of these media this year is drawing more heavily on the campaigns and surrogates than any other source for stories about the race.

“Campaigns, their surrogates and partisan allies are becoming a larger source of the messaging in the press about the candidates while journalists are becoming a smaller part of where these narratives come from,” the research finds.

Rosenstiel said a surprise finding that this was especially true for online coverage. Online’s emphasis on breaking news revolves around the attack-response cycle coming from the campaigns. Online makes almost no use of experts or polls, both significant sources in newspaper coverage.

Thus heavy consumers of news on the top websites get a double dose of the negativity and rotating attacks that dominate TV ads for the two candidates, already dominating air time in swing states.

One exception to the negativity, documented in an earlier PEJ study, was the candidates’ own websites and social media communications, both of which carry a majority of messages that are positive.

“The Real Romney”

As Tampa hosts the Republican National Convention next week, I am moderating a conversation at Poynter Sunday with Michael Kranish, co-author of “The Real Romney.” So I came to the PEJ report curious about how its account of media themes and public perceptions squared with the nuanced portrait in the book.

Kranish and co-author Scott Helman assess Romney as a complex and contradictory character. The negatives — deals at Bain Capital that led to job losses or awkwardness on the stump — were part of the Romney story well before the current campaign began.

But an episode that reflects positively on Romney’s ability to work through a complicated crisis — rescuing his mentor Bill Bain’s consulting business from severe financial difficulty — has barely been covered since the campaign’s story line is that both Bain’s and Romney’s related businesses were huge successes.

Similarly Romney’s two years as a Mormon missionary in France and his time as lay “bishop” of the church n the Boston area both gave him ample interaction with regular people rather than with fellow elites. But details of Romney’s service to his church or spiritual life also are downplayed in the candidate’s own campaign narrative and in media coverage.

Public perception

Despite equally negative media coverage, those surveyed favor Obama over Romney.

I regard the PEJ report on the negatives a sort of checklist for convention watchers next week. Which ones do Romney and the party try to counter — and how? With character potentially as big an issue as the economy in November, the stakes are very high.

Related: Former NPR reporter says, “I feel like I am, as a reporter in the Capitol, lied to every day, all day. There is so little genuine discussion going on with the reporters. … everything is spin.”

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