PEJ: Political coverage started to break Romney's way in March

Project for Excellence in Journalism

Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism studied coverage of the presidential race from Jan. 2-April 15. Among the findings:

• Stories with what PEJ calls "strategic and political frames" (or, colloquially, the horse-race stuff) dominated coverage, with 64 percent of all coverage of the Republican primaries devoted to campaigns' "momentum, strategy, horse race polls, advertising and fundraising." If you think the press is getting worse, consider that in 2008, when both parties had open primaries, 80 percent of coverage was about the horse race. Candidates' personal lives got 12 percent of all coverage in 2012; policy positions won 11 percent.

Mitt Romney got the most character-and-background coverage, but that changed after he won Michigan's primary on Feb. 28, when press coverage about Romney's "inevitability" began anew (the Romney-is-inevitable meme had been in hiding since last October). The inevitability narrative led to coverage far more welcome than references to Etch-a-Sketches or Seamus the dog: "This post-Michigan shift is also evident in the frame of Romney’s coverage," the report says. "In this case, it was a move away from his public record and his personal background to coverage that focused more heavily on the horse race."

Rick Santorum "was never able to sustain substantially positive coverage for more than two weeks." Positive coverage followed wins, and Santorum never had a sustained winning streak. He picked up important victories here and there. He was virtually ignored before his victory in Iowa, and, as the report says, "The focus of the coverage of Santorum is also a study in how a candidate may not actually receive much vetting for his or her ideas or record until the press decides that person could possibly win."

Newt Gingrich got half as much coverage as Romney. Gingrich coverage cratered in March: "In early March, he was a significant presence in about one-third of the campaign stories," the report says. "Three weeks later, he registered in less than 1% of the campaign stories." When Gingrich did receive vetting, it was "often very personal," the report notes: stories about his marriages in particular.

• Good news and bad news for Ron Paul: He was portrayed positively more than any other candidate. However: "that was offset by the fact that the media virtually ignored him," the report says. The paucity of Paul coverage reflected "media consensus that Paul could not win and thus, no extensive look at his history and biography was warranted."

President Obama was treated more as candidate Obama during the period studied, the authors report. Sixty-three percent of the stories about him had strategy or momentum frames. He never enjoyed a single week of more positive than negative coverage: Whether because the press was reporting on Republicans' criticism of the president or not, "the public has been exposed to a mostly negative portrayal," the report says.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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