Accuracy in Media

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism released a new study on how the news media and blogs have covered the first few months of the 2012 presidential race and found that Republican candidates have received far more favorable coverage than President Obama, by a fairly wide margin.

According to the report, Republican candidates received anywhere from 12% (Pawlenty) to 32% (Perry) favorable news coverage while Obama came in at just 9% and never rose above 10% in any given week during the study period, which was conducted between May 2 and October 9.

The results seemingly contradict previous surveys like the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1997, which showed that 61% of respondents favored the views of the Democratic Party; or the Pew Center for People and the Press in 2008 where nearly 71% of those polled believed the media favored Obama over McCain. But mostly they seem to contradict the obvious sympathetic treatment that Obama generally receives on a nightly basis from the mainstream media.

Not only did Obama receive little favorable coverage, according to Pew, but the ratio of negative to positive stories was greater than 4-1.

Those sound more like numbers George Bush might have registered, rather than mainstream-media favorite son Obama.

But what makes the study so flawed is Pew’s methodology.

First of all Pew surveyed what they called 11,500 mainstream media outlets. There may be that many media outlets, but those that are considered mainstream or influential are a fraction of that number.

Second they used an algorithm they developed to determine what constitutes positive, neutral and negative stories using a computer to assess each story. For example, a story on how well Herman Cain is liked was coded a positive and a story about Michele Bachmann’s migraines was coded negative, though neither story discussed specific proposals or policies of the candidates, which would more easily determine the story’s level of fairness.

While the computer would seem to be impartial and a perfect judge of story content it can’t accurately judge the stories without context. The researchers say that they tested the algorithm until it matched 97% of the researchers’ answers, but due to the vast number of stories analyzed they didn’t check on all the stories the computer scored.

They also trusted the computer to analyze the tone of the stories they chose to evaluate. Therefore the computer viewed the tone of the Cain article as positive and the Bachmann article as negative even though the stories themselves would likely have little effect one way or another on their respective campaigns.

Finally the researchers also included hundreds of blogs in their analysis. Since most blogs mix a fair amount of opinion in with the news they report on, they are hardly representative of what the media think of any particular candidate.

If Pew was really looking for an accurate study of how the media have covered the presidential candidates then they should have used a more focused group of the top newspapers based on circulation, news sites based on web visitors and the broadcast and cable networks, which combined are far more representative of the mainstream media than the extremely broad definition they used. But that probably would have given them far different results and defeated their intended goal of making it look like the media have been far more favorable to Republicans — even to the point of being anti-Obama — which would only serve to help the President explain his low poll numbers and other struggles as he seeks reelection.

Nice try Pew, but this report smells of liberal bias.

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