Media bias and impressions

by Robert Waldmann (stolen wholesale from his website by someone)

Media Matters by Jamison Foser

Foser has a devastating critique of, well the interpretation of a PEJ study. He says that the press (Howard Kurtz of course) has accepted the claim that coverage was biased in favor of Obama, based on the clear liberal bias of the fact, in this case including polls.

I steal much of his post, because I think he buried the lede.

Unfortunately, the conservative complaints got some superficial support from a recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) that claimed that John McCain has received much more “negative” coverage than Barack Obama during the campaign.

The PEJ study quickly got significant attention from the establishment media and blogs.

But while the study lends rhetorical support to the conservatives’ arguments, it is nearly useless as an actual assessment of how the media covered the campaign.

First off, it is worth noting this little nugget about the study’s methodology, buried at the end of the PEJ report: “Talk radio stories … were not included in this campaign study of tone.” PEJ offers no justification for the exclusion of talk radio. Not a word. In what surely must be a coincidence, talk radio skews further to the right than any other medium.

Now, here’s PEJ’s description of how it assesses whether a news report is “positive” or “negative”:

To examine tone, the Project takes a particularly cautious and conservative approach. Unlike some researchers, we examine not just whether assertions in stories are positive or negative, but also whether they are inherently neutral. This, we believe, provides a much clearer and fairer sense of the tone of coverage than ignoring those balanced or mixed evaluations. Second, we do not simply tally up all the evaluative assertions in stories and compile them into a single pile to measure. Journalists and audiences think about press coverage in stories or segments. They ask themselves, is this story positive or negative or neutral? Hence the Project measures coverage by story, and for a story to be deemed as having a negative or positive tone, it must be clearly so, not a close call: for example, the negative assertions in a story must outweigh positive assertions by a margin of at least 1.5 to 1 for that story to be deemed negative.

OK … anyone want to guess what that means in practical terms?

Unfortunately, the few actual examples of “positive” and “negative” coverage PEJ offers do little to clarify its methodology, and less to inspire confidence. For example, PEJ notes:

Some of that positive coverage was related to evidence that the financial crisis was aiding Obama. “Recent economic woes have given Democrat Barack Obama a clear lead over Republican John McCain,” declared a story posted on AOL News on Sept. 24, citing a 9-point lead for Obama in a new Washington Post/ABC News poll.

That’s what counts as “positive” coverage of Obama? A fairly straightforward report that a poll finds Obama in a “clear lead” over McCain? And, it seems, much of Obama’s “positive” coverage consisted of reports like that:

The data clearly point in this direction for some of the explanation. Of those stories that focused mostly on polls, a clear majority (57%) were positive for Obama, while less than a quarter (23%) were negative. Similarly, stories about the electoral map, swing states and campaign strategy were even more favorable (77% positive vs. 6% negative). These represent the most positive element of Obama’s coverage.

So, if a candidate is winning, and the polls show that, and the media report that the polls show the candidate winning, that counts as “positive” coverage. Well, OK, it’s true that such a story is “positive,” but it tells us nearly nothing about the media.
by Robert Waldmann