Study: TV News Bashes Romney, Boosts Horse Race

January 18, 2012

Press Release
January 18, 2012
Contact: Rachel Salabes

CBS Is More Positive Than FOX Toward GOP Field

Frontrunner Mitt Romney is getting by far the most negative press of the GOP field, according to a new study of television news coverage by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. The study also found that the campaign horse race is getting over six times as much coverage as the candidates’ positions on policy issues. According to CMPA director and George Mason University professor Robert Lichter, “The media love a horse race and hate a frontrunner.”

This study covered 118 stories on the Republican primaries from January 1 to the January 10 New Hampshire primary on the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX (the first half hour of Fox News Channel’s “Special Report”, which is most like the network news shows in content and presentation). This is the first release from CMPA’s ongoing 2012 Election News Watch Project. For information on our methodology see:

Bad News for Romney Mitt Romney was the only major candidate to receive a majority of negative evaluations by sources and reporters, on both the broadcast network nightly news and FOX “Special Report.” (We measured evaluative comments about the candidates’ behavior, past records, issue positions, personal character, etc. However, we excluded comments about how they were faring in the campaign horse race.)

Examples: “Many of the most conservative elements of the party… do not trust him.” – election analyst, NBC

“I think he’s lying to get elected.” – voter, FOX

Broadcast Results On the broadcast networks, evaluative comments of Romney were 78% negative vs. only 22% positive. By contrast, on-air judgments of Ron Paul were 73% positive vs. 27% negative, evaluations of Jon Huntsman were 71% positive vs. 29% negative, Rick Santorum’s evaluations were 56% positive vs. 44% negative, and comments about Newt Gingrich were 52% positive vs. 48% negative. Other candidates received too few evaluations to be statistically meaningful.

FOX Results Romney fared slightly better on FOX “Special Report”, than on the networks, with 63% negative vs. 37% positive evaluations. By contrast, Ron Paul fared less well than he did on the networks, with evenly balanced coverage — 50% negative and 50% positive comments. Rick Santorum did best on FOX with 63% positive vs. 37% negative judgments. These were the only candidates who received enough evaluations on FOX for meaningful analysis.

Examples: “[Paul is] in a category of his own as a libertarian and may prove to be fatally flawed.” – Charles Krauthammer, FOX

“I like Newt Gingrich because to me Newt has the experience.” – voter, CBS

Network Differences However, the various networks differed sharply from one another in their combined evaluations of the entire Republican field. A majority of all candidate evaluations aired on CBS and FOX were positive, while comments were 3 to 1 negative on NBC and 2 to 1 negative on ABC.

CBS had the most positive portrayals — 57% positive vs. 43% negative, partly because of its highly favorable (89% positive) evaluations of Ron Paul. FOX had the most balanced overall coverage with 52% positive vs. 48% negative comments. NBC was the most negative overall with 27% positive vs. 73% negative coverage, followed closely by ABC with 32% positive vs. 68% negative coverage. Both NBC and ABC featured 85% negative comments on Romney.

Example: “I love his foreign policy because… if you stick your nose into other people’s business, you’re going to get punched eventually.” — college student, CBS

The Horse Race Wins There were over six times as many stories on the campaign horse race as there were on the policies of the candidates (105 vs. 16 stories). Even when the candidates’ backgrounds are added to the comparison, the horse race outpaced coverage of their records, personalities, and policies by a margin of over 3 to 1 (105 vs. 31 stories). In this respect FOX and the broadcast networks were very similar.

The major topics of the coverage, measured as the number of stories about each, were as follows:

  1. Campaign horse race – 105
  2. Policy issues – 16
  3. Voters – 11
  4. Candidates’ professional backgrounds – 8
  5. Candidates’ personal backgrounds – 7
  6. Campaign conduct – 7
  7. Debates – 5

Note: Some stories had more than one major topic.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, which is affiliated with George Mason University. It has monitored every presidential election and every new administration since 1988 using the same methodology. For CMPA findings on the Obama administration see:

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