PEJ: Obama’s media advantage

The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) released a study reporting that the media is neither ‘Fair’ nor ‘Balanced’ with regard to their presidential election coverage. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

Not surprisingly, however, was the tone of this study. They reported that the news media has devoted more attention to Democrat Barack Obama than to Republican John McCain and not to the quality of the coverage.

An article in the Sun-Sentinel interpreting the study pointed out: Newsweek has done six covers with Obama over the past year, two with McCain. A Rolling Stone cover with Obama stopped just short of adding a halo.” That would be opposite of the New Yorker cover which this article failed to mention.

They also referred to the ‘attention gap’ which is the variance in coverage between the two candidates.

There is no question that Obama has received more coverage than McCain. According to the study, this is the sixth straight week since the general election campaign began that Obama has received a distinct advantage of media exposure over McCain. ‘Last week, Obama was a significant presence in 83% of campaign stories studied, vs. McCain in 52%.’ The PEJ’s classification of a significant presence is that ‘25% of the story must be about that person.’

The six week total has Obama being a significant factor in 78% of the stories to McCain’s 51%.

The PEJ attests that they are ‘non partisan, non ideological and non political.’

Yet, when you delve a little deeper into this study, a few things come to light. The PEJ provided a list of campaign storylines that they researched for the week of the study. 22.8% of the stories dealt with Obama’s trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. Other news storylines: Iraq War (13.1%), Obama and McCain speak at NAACP (11.9%), New Yorker Cover (10%), Candidates Reach out to Hispanic Voters (4.5%), Jesse Jackson’s comments (3.2%) and Obama’s race and Electability (2.9%).

Let’s study these for a minute:

Obama’s trip coverage (22.8%) was initiated by attacks coming out of the McCain campaign that questioned Obama’s positions on Iraq. The media is extensively covering this trip for numerous reasons but based on some of the on-air comments, they were expecting possible Obama missteps.

Obama and McCain pandering to the NAACP and Hispanics accounted for 16.4% of the storylines.

Obama smears (New Yorker Cover, Jesse Jackson’s Comments and Obama’s Race and Electability) accounted for 16.1%. If you remove these negative stories the difference would have been 67% to 52% favoring Obama in quantity of stories.

Now, let’s review the quality of the coverage.

Every negative story about Obama seems to have legs and makes its way into the headlines and carry’s through multiple news cycles. It is amazing how many false rumors exist about Obama and even with proof, they don’t subside. There are still a significant number of people who believe that Obama is a secret Muslim, even though we heard about his angry Christian pastor for endless news cycles. Both stories spun Obama in a negative light and are intended to drive a wedge in the electorate. And both were credited (according to this study) as being stories devoted to Obama.

There is a seemingly endless list of these types of negative stories about Obama and the New Yorker magazine did a good job bringing most of them back into the spotlight. The main ones about McCain concern his age and the gas tax holiday gimmick. Even these 2 still get spun in a favorable light as the media reports of the charming senior moments of the Presumptive Republican nominee.

Last week, I presented 3 posts that discussed many (not all) of the stories the media ignored or lightly covered about McCain from the week of July 7th. Each of the items would have resulted in hours of coverage if it were Obama.

Does that infer favoritism towards Obama when all stories (positive and negative) get inflated coverage or is it favoritism for McCain, whose negative stories seem to hide from public view?

NBC News Political Director, Chuck Todd exemplified this by using my favorite ‘shoe on the other foot’ analogy regarding the Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

“To really understand the importance of Maliki’s comments, you need to consider their opposite. Imagine if Maliki had walked in front of the cameras and said, “at this stage, a timetable for withdrawal is unrealistic, and we hope our American friends will not bow to domestic political pressures and be hasty in leaving Iraq just as the country improves.” It would be a transformative moment in this election. John McCain would talk of nothing else. The cable shows would talk of nothing else. Magazines would run thousands of covers about “Obama’s Iraq Problem.” Obama would probably lose the race.”

Using Todd’s approach, how would the media have covered the following stories had they been about Obama?

McCain called Social Security ‘an absolute disgrace.’

McCain could balance the budget by winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

McCain opposed the GI Bill, was a no-show for the vote, then took credit for the bill.

McCain saying that he named the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line as his squadron mates while a prisoner in 1967 when in fact it was the Green Bay Packers offense.

If the media wants to make things right, they can begin by covering the McCain quote from Monday on ABC’s Good Morning America. McCain was asked about the situation in Afghanistan:

“I think it’s serious. . . . It’s a serious situation, but there’s a lot of things we need to do. We have a lot of work to do and I’m afraid it’s a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq/Pakistan border.”

In case you wondered, Iraq and Pakistan share a border … with Iran – not each other.

Getting back to Obama, let’s look at the items that the media has shared with us, since the entire media contingent apparently tagged along.

Maliki announced to reporters that he was more closely aligned with Obama’s position on Iraq.

Obama was able to hit a 3-point shot.

We have seen a nice selection of photos and videos of Obama looking presidential.

So for the first time since the media has reported on Obama’s eloquent speeches, the positive stories about Obama outweigh the smears and attacks. But those smears and attacks have no place dominating our news cycles. Those should be reserved for the facts.

I am a strong supporter of the Fairness Doctrine that was withdrawn in 1984. I miss the impartiality of the media. Then again, maybe it was just my perception of the media back in the ‘good old days.’

I don’t care if Obama has 60% of the stories to McCain’s 40%. As long as the stories are objective and informative. The percentages should balance out over time since both candidates are out there making news.

They should stop covering the smears. They aren’t newsworthy and it gives credence to the lies. “Hey, if it’s on the news …”

Don’t sugar coat it. If either candidate says something that is factually wrong, tell me. If their new campaign ad is loaded with lies, FACT CHECK it. You are the media. You are supposed to report the facts!

And please, stop using question marks in your news headings. “Obama a Muslim?” “Will McCain make it to a second term?” These are insulting on so many levels and have no place on the news broadcasts.

It is time for us to take back the news or we may end up with another embarrassment for Commander in Chief.

Read the PEJ study – War Takes Center Stage as Obama (and Media) Moves Overseas

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2 responses to “PEJ: Obama’s media advantage

  1. Interesting study. All the coverage cuts both ways. Yes, Obama is getting a lot more coverage. But he’s also getting a lot more scrutiny. Some of the coverage is a bit excessive, but I’m sure it will be equitable when it’s all over.

  2. CBS has endured a lot embarrassment over the poor edit job on the Couric / McCain interview replacing McCain’s incorrect answer with another one. Maybe this will trigger a correction in the way the media reports the news. At least I sure hope it does.