Rick Perry really did get an easy ride, Ron Paul really has been ignored and Barack Obama truly can’t catch a break.
That’s a rough summary of the findings of a massive, computer-based study of campaign coverage by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The center, using a computer program developed by a Harvard University expert on quantitative analysis, analyzed every campaign story published from May 2 though Oct. 9 by about 11,500 news outlets -- essentially every news outlet in the business -- to determine whether each individual statement about a candidate was positive, negative or neutral. The results from that massive database overturn some pieces of conventional wisdom about journalism and politics.
First, the main findings: Perry, the Texas governor and, briefly, the colossus of the GOP race, received substantially more media attention than any of his rivals. Once he announced his candidacy on Aug. 13, he received three times as much coverage as the once, and perhaps future, front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. For much of that time, the study found, the tone of the Perry coverage was heavily favorable -- by a roughly 3-2 margin, giving Perry not only the most coverage but the most positive coverage.
At the other end of the spectrum, the study showed that Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has had less coverage than any other GOP candidate -- something that Paul and his backers often have complained about.
As for President Obama, as one would expect for a sitting president, he has gotten plenty of coverage. But that coverage has been relentlessly negative in tone. The study found that only 9% of the mentions of Obama were positive, compared with 34% negative and 57% neutral -- far more negative than the coverage of any of the Republicans.
Even the week that U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden, the coverage of the president was more negative than positive. That may be what one would expect for a president stuck with a terrible economy and slumping poll ratings, but it flies against the belief held by many Republicans activists that the media tilts heavily against their candidates.
So, does all that coverage actually make a difference?
Not much, the study seems to suggest. For Perry, weeks of mostly favorable coverage did nothing to protect him against a crash once the public began to see him in televised debates. Perry’s coverage remained positive on balance even after the sharp downward turn began, the study noted. The tone of the coverage lagged behind his poll numbers.
For Paul, the relative absence of coverage seems not to have interfered with his ability to get his libertarian message out to supporters. That’s even more true for Herman Cain, who was one of the least-covered candidates but who has shot to the top of some recent polls nevertheless.
One question that prompted Pew to dive into this project, which will continue through the campaign, was whether press coverage is a leading indicator -- one that predicts a candidate’s future level of support -- or a lagging indicator, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project on Excellence in Journalism. The answer so far seems to be that it’s not an indicator at all.