Don't Believe It: The Media Aren't Beating Up on Barack Obama

Six months ago, Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) came out with a report claiming that the GOP candidates received more positive press coverage than President Obama. Monday morning, the group came out with another installment from the same ongoing study. Their press release claims: "The President’s media coverage in 2012 has been consistently negative while his Republican challenger has experienced a more mixed narrative."

As MRC documented in October, PEJ's methodology is seriously flawed: "First, they didn’t study what most people would consider 'the media.' Second, their definition of 'positive' and 'negative' press doesn’t match what media experts consider 'favorable' or 'unfavorable' coverage. And, third, the researchers didn’t really even look at the stories — they let a computer... churn through the words and determine whether an assertion was pro- or anti-Obama."

That's all still true, but that isn't stopping some who should know better from running PEJ's headline as if they have evidence that the broader news media is really a vast right-wing conspiracy.

The headline at MediaBistro's "FishBowlNY" blog on Monday: "Media Loved Romney and Blasted Obama During Primaries"

USA Today's David Jackson: "Republicans often protest their media coverage, but a new study says the press has been tougher this year on President Obama. In fact, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism reports: 'Of all the presidential candidates studied in this report, only one figure did not have a single week in 2012 when positive coverage exceeded negative coverage -- the incumbent, Democrat Barack Obama.'"

During his 3pm ET show on Monday, MSNBC's Martin Bashir touted the PEJ study to DNC boss Debbie Wasserman Schultz as evidence that Obama had been victimized: "Some people have said that the Republican primary experience over the last six, seven months has been a brutal and bruising one for Mitt Romney. But, in fact, [a] Pew poll suggests that the President, as the result of things that were said during the Republican primary, has been attacked more negatively than Romney," displaying an on-screen chart claiming the President received only 18% "positive news coverage."

But "the press" hasn't been tougher on Obama than the Republicans. PEJ's "good press/bad press" statistic mixes reports of the campaign horse race (who's ahead, who's behind) with judgmental coverage of a candidate's background, issue positions, etc. And, according to PEJ's own statistics, the vast majority of the reports they examined (they peg it at 64%) are about campaign strategy.

[Check out this BiasAlert for more explanation of the flaws in PEJ's methodology.]

What this all means is that the GOP candidates got better "good press" scores because they each won primaries this year. This is obvious when you look at the report's explanation of how Romney, Santorum and Gingrich each fared with "the press" (I'm stripping out the statistics, because they are a meaningless distraction):

[Romney] enjoyed one week of clearly positive coverage... in the week following his solid, if widely expected win in New Hampshire on Jan. 10. But that media bounce was short lived. The week of his loss on Jan. 21 to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, negative coverage of Romney... outstripped positive....

Santorum’s Iowa victory on Jan. 3 also produced a burst of positive coverage for him....But during the week of his third-place finish in South Carolina on Jan. 21, the tone of Santorum’s coverage dropped markedly....

Gingrich only enjoyed a single week in which positive coverage about him significantly outweighed negative, the week he won the South Carolina primary.

In other words, PEJ is not actually tracking how the press -- journalists, reporters, commentators, etc. -- are evaluating, ranking, spinning, etc., the campaign. Their sample is so heavy with redundant Web posting of the same horse race results that it completely masks the spin that journalists impart to the coverage.Think about it this way: Can any serious media observer argue that the media elite have been more positive towards Christian conservative Rick Santorum than Barack Obama? On its face, this study is not measuring what it purports to measure, i.e., the tone of campaign journalism.

Undoubtedly, given the resources they've put into this project, you'll see additional reports throughout the campaign year. If President Obama takes a polling lead over Mitt Romney, you'll see PEJ claim a burst of good press for the Demcorat; if Romney takes the lead, they'll continue to say that the press is beating up on Obama. Don't believe it.

-- Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.