Tag Archives: Media Bias

Mission accomplished

Robert Samuelson, opinion writer for the Post, thinks the Press has been too kind to Obama.  They are, he claims, "infatuated" with him; they have, as it were, a crush on Obama.  What is the evidence for this claim?  Why, studies, of course:

Obama has inspired a collective fawning. What started in the campaign (the chief victim was Hillary Clinton, not John McCain) has continued, as a study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism shows. It concludes: "President Barack Obama has enjoyed substantially more positive media coverage than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush during their first months in the White House."

The study examined 1,261 stories by The Post, the New York Times, ABC, CBS and NBC, Newsweek magazine and the "NewsHour" on PBS. Favorable articles (42 percent) were double the unfavorable (20 percent), while the rest were "neutral" or "mixed." Obama's treatment contrasts sharply with coverage in the first two months of the Bush (22 percent of stories favorable) and Clinton (27 percent) presidencies.

Unlike George Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama received favorable coverage in both news columns and opinion pages. The nature of stories also changed. "Roughly twice as much of the coverage of Obama (44 percent) has concerned his personal and leadership qualities than was the case for Bush (22 percent) or Clinton (26 percent)," the report said. "Less of the coverage, meanwhile, has focused on his policy agenda."

Gee.  None of this supports Samuelson's claim that there is "collective fawning" or "infatuation" on the part of the media for Obama.  Besides, he's not even mildly suspicious of the metrics of the study.  What does it mean, for instance, that an article is "favorable"?   Does it advocate Obama's position (whatever that may be) or does it just report that that position enjoys broad support?  Newspapers are filled with all kinds of articles (many of them are of the inside baseball variety); lumping them all together under the simple "favorable/unfavorable" metric is bound to obfuscate questions of bias rather than clarify them.  More importantly, however, increasing "unfavorable" does not entail that the press has grown any more critical or skeptical.  Knee-jerk skepticism in the name of balance is (ironically) worse than none at all.  Finally, its seems wrong to presume, as Samuelson has, that there is some ideal position for the favorable/unfavorable ratings.  Perhaps this is where it ought to be.  But that's another matter.  

Teenage Wasteland

Media bias resists simple quantification.  First, it's not clear what "bias" means.  In the case of a contest between two political candidates, it may mean (1) a tendency to measure people by differing standards; or (2) uncritically adopting or repeating the brand identity (Maverick!) of one candidate over another; (3) deliberately ignoring negative things about one candidate; (4) accentuating negative things about one candidate; (5) purposely going negative on one candidate in order to give the appearance of balance (click that link–it's astounding); (6) uncritically assuming background realities (American is a center right nation!) which favor one candidate over another.  I suppose we could go on and on if we wanted to. But you probably get the idea.  Second, bias necessarily implies some kind of content analysis, so counting articles as "negative" or "positive" or op-ed pieces as "laudatory" or "negative" just doesn't do anything to enlighten us about media bias. 

So Debbie Howell, the bumbling Ombudsman (Oh Noes! I called her a name!), sums up the Post's "favoring" Obama in purely quantitative terms.  One simply breaks articles into two groups: negative and positive.  Then count.  She writes:

The Post provided a lot of good campaign coverage, but readers have been consistently critical of the lack of probing issues coverage and what they saw as a tilt toward Democrat Barack Obama. My surveys, which ended on Election Day, show that they are right on both counts.

Ever notice that in discussions of media bias, the accuser catches the bias, but assumes others are not so acute?  Anyway.  Now the numbers:

My assistant, Jean Hwang, and I have been examining Post coverage since Nov. 11 last year on issues, voters, fundraising, the candidates' backgrounds and horse-race stories on tactics, strategy and consultants. We also have looked at photos and Page 1 stories since Obama captured the nomination June 4. Numbers don't tell you everything, but they give you a sense of The Post's priorities.  

I would say they don't tell you anything.  Not to belabor the point, here is an example of Howell's numerological analysis:

The op-ed page ran far more laudatory opinion pieces on Obama, 32, than on Sen. John McCain, 13. There were far more negative pieces (58) about McCain than there were about Obama (32), and Obama got the editorial board's endorsement. The Post has several conservative columnists, but not all were gung-ho about McCain.

Stories and photos about Obama in the news pages outnumbered those devoted to McCain. Post reporters, photographers and editors — like most of the national news media — found the candidacy of Obama, the first African American major-party nominee, more newsworthy and historic. Journalists love the new; McCain, 25 years older than Obama, was already well known and had more scars from his longer career in politics.

The number of Obama stories since Nov. 11 was 946, compared with McCain's 786. Both had hard-fought primary campaigns, but Obama's battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton was longer, and the numbers reflect that.

McCain clinched the GOP nomination on March 4, and Obama won his on June 4. From then to Election Day, the tally was Obama, 626 stories, and McCain, 584. Obama was on the front page 176 times, McCain, 144 times; 41 stories featured both.

Our survey results are comparable to figures for the national news media from a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. It found that from June 9, when Clinton dropped out of the race, until Nov. 2, 66 percent of the campaign stories were about Obama compared with 53 percent for McCain; some stories featured both. The project also calculated that in that time, 57 percent of the stories were about the horse race and 13 percent were about issues.

Counting from June 4, Obama was in 311 Post photos and McCain in 282. Obama led in most categories. Obama led 133 to 121 in pictures more than three columns wide, 178 to 161 in smaller pictures, and 164 to 133 in color photos. In black and white photos, the nominees were about even, with McCain at 149 and Obama at 147. On Page 1, they were even at 26 each. Post photo and news editors were surprised by my first count on Aug. 3, which showed a much wider disparity, and made a more conscious effort at balance afterward.

Some readers complain that coverage is too poll-driven. They're right, but it's not going to change. The Post's polling was on the mark, and in some cases ahead of the curve, in focusing on independent voters, racial attitudes, low-wage voters, the shift of African Americans' support from Clinton to Obama and the rising importance of economic issues. The Post and its polling partner ABC News include 50 to 60 issues questions in every survey instead of just horse-race questions, so public attitudes were plumbed as well.

Ok, that was long and rather silly.  We don't know what those articles said and Powell doesn't seem to care much.  But how would one remedy such evident bias in favor of Obama?  Powell has an idea:

But Obama deserved tougher scrutiny than he got, especially of his undergraduate years, his start in Chicago and his relationship with Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who was convicted this year of influence-peddling in Chicago. The Post did nothing on Obama's acknowledged drug use as a teenager. 

There's always next time.