Media report card for presidential election: Who's gotten the best coverage?

In the first six months of the 2012 presidential election, the news media have given Rick Perry the most positive attention but Herman Cain's star is rising.

Mary Ann Chastain/ AP
Republican presidential candidates, from left, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., businessman Herman Cain, former Rep. Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pose before the American Principles Project Palmetto Freedom Forum in September in Columbia, S.C.

In the first six months of the race for the White House, the news media have given Texas Governor Rick Perry the most coverage and the most positive attention while President Barack Obama received the most negative coverage. And Texas Congressman Ron Paul garnered the least news media notice of any candidate.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) used computer algorithmic technology to assess presidential candidate coverage from 11,500 broadcast, print, and web news outlets during the period May 2 to Oct. 9. It also looked at coverage from hundreds of thousands of blogs.

As the survey ended, Governor Perry’s lead in favorable news media coverage was waning and former pizza executive Herman Cain “was very much in a rising mode,” says PEJ associate director Mark Jurkowitz. Given Mr. Cain’s recent rise in public opinion polls, he could come under more intense scrutiny which might shift coverage into a more negative tone. A number of news organizations recently have run stories critical of Cain’s 9-9-9 tax program.

“It feels like, and again this is my own personal opinion, that the media now recognizing that Cain is someone to be reckoned with in this race, are starting to take a closer look at him. When and how or if that is reflected in the tone of coverage that we can’t say yet,” Mr. Jurkowitz said.

While the overall tone of news media coverage of the candidates varied sharply over time, commentary in the blogosphere was much more consistent. “The blogs are much more static than the news coverage is,” Jurkowitz said. “If you look at the candidate’s tone in blogs, you’ll find they barely change from week to week which suggests basically people already have an opinion of them, they are restating those opinions over and over again. To some degree the blogs aren’t reacting to the day to day events of the campaign.”

While most Republican candidates fared worse in the blogs than at the hands of traditional media outlets, Ron Paul was an exception. Pew found his coverage in the blogosphere was the most favorable for any candidate – 48 percent positive and just 15 percent negative.

Among the traditional news sources, Rick Perry had the most flattering coverage over the five months the survey covered – 32 percent positive to 20 percent negative, with the balance being rated neutral. His positive coverage numbers dipped in mid-September and in the final week of the survey his negative reviews outnumbered the positive.

Coverage of Cain was only slightly more positive than negative – 28 percent versus 23 percent – over the entire period of the study. But his positive coverage rose sharply in October.

Mitt Romney’s coverage has been notable mostly for its consistency. At 26 percent positive and 27 percent negative, it is less favorable than the coverage accorded candidates Perry, Cain, or Michele Bachmann.

In each of the Pew study’s 23 weeks, President Obama’s negative coverage outran the positive by more than 20 percentage points. Over the study period, 9 percent of his coverage was positive while 34 percent was negative. The balance, Pew said, was neutral or a straight accounting of events. Obama got slightly better treatment in the blogosphere where 14 percent of the coverage was positive and 36 percent negative.

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