News coverage of both major presidential candidates has been more negative this year than in almost any other recent election, with President Barack Obama cast as failing to lift the nation's limping economy and Republican Mitt Romney framed as a plutocrat and corporate raider, a study of campaign media coverage found.
The report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism released Thursday examined coverage by 50 major media outlets over a 10-week period from the end of May to early August. It found that the "master narratives" about Obama and Romney have been equally unfavorable, with some 72 percent of stories about Obama being negative along with 71 percent of stories about Romney.
Project for Excellence Director Tom Rosenstiel said the reporting on both candidates seemed largely to be driven by each campaign's talking points rather than a more dispassionate assessment of who the candidates are and what they say they will do in the next four years.
"The media are more of an enabler and a conduit for partisan rhetoric than we've ever seen before," Rosenstiel said. "It's been happening steadily over time, and this year, it really jumped out at us as inexorable. And it helps explain why this campaign feels so negative."
The 2004 presidential contest — Republican President George W. Bush ran for re-election against Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts — was similarly negative, the report said. But Rosenstiel said the underlying reasons for the negativity this year are very different.
"The coverage in 2004 was really dominated by the controversy over Iraq. This year, the coverage is really a reflection of what the candidates and their surrogates are saying about each other every day," Rosenstiel said.
Among the findings in the study:
—The economy is overwhelmingly driving coverage of Obama, with most stories either portraying the president as unable to improve the nation's economic situation or suggesting that his policies had prevented it from getting worse. Stories with the more negative assessment outnumbered the more positive assessment by more than a 2-1 margin.
—Stories about Romney largely cast the former Massachusetts governor as a cold-eyed capitalist from his tenure at the private equity firm Bain Capital or as an elitist out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.
—Stories about what each candidate says he wants to do as president — Obama's assertion that he wants to help build the middle class and Romney's claim to have the experience to fix the economy — are largely drowned out by negative reports.
—Voter perceptions are often at odds with the media narrative. A recent Pew poll found that 52 percent of voters said Obama was a person of good moral character, but that assessment represented just 1 percent of the coverage about him.
The study was based on an analysis of 1,772 assertions that appeared in more than 800 stories from major news outlets in radio, cable and network broadcast television, newspaper front pages and the most popular news websites in the country.