Study: TV News Coverage Helped Sink Santorum Romney Rebounded in Race for Good Press

April 10, 2012

Press Release
April 10, 2012
Contact: Katy Davis

Broadcast Networks and Fox Both Panned GOP Field

Rick Santorum’s campaign was undermined by a wave of bad press, while Mitt Romney’s coverage improved over time, according to a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. The study also found that coverage of the entire GOP field was equally negative on the evening news shows at the broadcast networks and Fox News Channel. According to Dr Robert Lichter, a professor of communication at George Mason University and CMPA President, Santorum’s emergence as Romney’s top opponent ensured a downturn in his media image: “A candidate’s coverage depends less on where he stands on the issues than where he stands in the horse race.”

This study covers 483 stories on the Republican primaries that aired on the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news and the first half hour of Fox News Channel’s “Special Report” during two time periods: January 1 to January 31 (from before the Iowa caucuses to the Florida primary) and February 22 to March 6 (the two weeks prior to Super Tuesday). We measured all evaluative comments about the candidates’ behavior, past records, issue positions, personal character, etc. However, we excluded comments about how the candidates were faring in the campaign horse race. This is the latest release of findings from CMPA’s ongoing 2012 Election News Watch Project. For information on our methodology see: https://cmpa.gmu.edu/about_methods.htm

In January Santorum’s coverage on the three broadcast networks was nearly 2 to 1 positive, while Romney’s coverage was over 2 to 1 negative. Specifically, Santorum’s on-air evaluations by reporters and sources were 62% positive (vs. 38% negative), compared to only 31% positive (vs. 69% negative) evaluations of Romney.

In the networks’ Super Tuesday coverage, however, a majority of Romney’s press was positive, while Santorum’s was nearly 2 to 1 negative.: “Specifically, 51% of Romney’s evaluations were favorable, compared to only 35% favorable evaluations of Santorum.

On Fox Santorum sank to Romney’s level of mostly bad press. In January, the tone of Fox’s coverage was almost identical to the networks’ – 63% positive on-air comments about Santorum, compared to only 39% positive comments Romney. In the run-up to Super Tuesday, however, Santorum dropped to only 44% positive evaluations on Fox, while Romney’s evaluations remained 39% positive. Ironically, on March 13 Santorum charged that Fox News was “shilling” for Romney. This complaint came at a time when Romney’s coverage had improved on the broadcast networks but remained mostly negative on Fox’s nightly news program.

No Pro-GOP Tilt on Fox Overall, the GOP field has fared no better on Fox than on the broadcast networks. For all candidates combined in both time periods we studied, on-air evaluations of the Republican contenders were 41.4% positive on the networks and 41.2% positive on Fox.

The Horse Race Wins Again “The campaign horse race was discussed over four times as frequently as the candidates’ policies (386 vs. 16 discussions). Even when the candidates’ professional backgrounds are added to the comparison, the horse race outpaced substantive coverage by over a 2 to 1 margin. Other major topics of the coverage were the candidates’ conduct on the campaign trail (100) and profiles of the electorate (60). In this respect FOX and the broadcast networks were very similar. The major topics of the coverage, measured as the number of on-air discussions about each, were as follows: 1. Campaign horse race – 386 2. Campaign conduct – 100 3. Policy issues – 89 4. Candidates’ professional backgrounds – 72 5. Voters – 60

It’s Still the Economy, Stupid Discussions of policy issues revolved around the economy, which accounted for four of the five most frequently discussed issues. The most frequently discussed issues were:

  1. State of the economy – 24
  2. Jobs, unemployment – 21
  3. Immigration – 14
  4. Taxes – 10
  5. Budget, deficit – 8
  6. Iran – 8
  7. Church-state relations – 8

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: https://cmpa.gmu.edu/studies_political_obama.html

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