By Jeffrey M. McCall
Analysts who wonder why the citizenry is so down on politics can begin the discussion by looking at media coverage. Post-election research demonstrates that the mainstream media presented the presidential campaign through a negative lens. It is little wonder that Americans get weary of politics and that voter turnout in 2012 was lower than expected. News coverage of the election was certainly not portrayed as a celebration of democracy in action.
A study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed campaign coverage from the major broadcast outlets, newspapers and websites. Some 2,500 stories were assessed and coded. The overall tone of news stories was negative for both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. From the beginning of the conventions through Oct. 21, both candidates received more negatively toned stories than positive.
According to the Pew study, however, news coverage took a pronounced turn in President Obama's favor during the final week of the campaign. During that week, Obama benefited from more stories with a positive tone compared to negative. Romney's coverage remained negative overall, with the GOP nominee receiving almost twice as many negatively toned stories during the final week of the campaign than positive. In addition to the more positive tone Obama garnered, the president was a significant presence in 80 percent of campaign stories in the week before the election, while Romney was in only 62 percent of campaign news. The effect of Hurricane Sandy explained part of that difference as the president's disaster response was celebrated by most press accounts.
The presidential debates, as usual, didn't figure largely into the election outcome. Although Romney's performance in the first debate was viewed positively by viewers and reporters alike, the impact soon faded and the subsequent two debates became insignificant as general campaign noise. Follow-up media coverage of the debates contributed nothing to the national discussion. Pew research indicated that news of the debates in the following days focused heavily on which candidate "won," rather than on issues the candidates discussed.
The 2012 debates will be remembered more for how the journalist/moderators behaved than for how the presidential candidates performed. Jim Lehrer of PBS received much criticism from pundits for letting Obama and Romney too often sort things out for themselves. CNN's Candy Crowley caught flak before the debates for indicating she would be an active moderator, and then caught more after the debates for actually following through on her promise to be debate referee.
Research by Rasmussen Reports shows that 42 percent of voters thought the moderators tried to help Obama during the debates, and only three percent thought the moderators helped Romney. The Commission on Presidential Debates should use the 2012 experience to design a format that simply removes journalists from the stage altogether.
While politics is a rough-and-tumble process, the nation suffers from media coverage that exudes a negative tone. Citizens tire of the verbal brickbats and angry rhetoric. It is one thing to have candidates and their political action committees firing off cheap shots and unfair labels through paid advertising, but to have news accounts become the echo chamber of such divisive verbal blasts is unnecessary. Too often the news coverage of the campaign merely parroted dueling campaign attacks that labeled Romney the cold-hearted corporate liar and Obama the socialist, economic divider.
Television news was particularly guilty of shallow and formulaic reporting, relying on templates that showed image-manipulated campaign rallies and candidates blasting each other with one-liners.
Late in the campaign, as voters prepared to exercise their judgment, the media focused not on issues, but on what is known as horse-race coverage, the "news" generated by countless polls. Pew analysis showed almost half of all news accounts focused on the horse race as the campaign wound down.
Sadly, negative campaign news coverage gave Americans a demoralizing headache. There was too little news substance regarding the major issues confronting the nation. The executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, Mike Cavender, explained away the media's lack of reporting substance by writing, " the fact is that much of the public has only a fleeting interest in issue stories." Such an excuse for media underperformance demonstrates a general lack of confidence in the public's intelligence. Further, it overlooks the cold fact that journalists themselves set the reporting agenda, not the public.
Jeffrey M. McCall, a native of Champaign, is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and author of "Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @Prof_McCall.