Study explores TV election coverage

Report on media bias has surprising results

MSNBC favors Barack Obama, Fox News Channel favors John McCain, and CNN is somewhere in the middle in its political coverage, though CNN is generally more negative than other media outlets, according to a study of recent media coverage of the presidential race.

Those conclusions don’t come as much of a surprise to cable news watchers, but interesting nuances were also revealed in the study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

For instance, Fox News has run nearly twice as many negative stories about McCain as positive ones.

And despite repeated allegations that MSNBC’s liberal primetime programming has tainted NBC News’ political coverage, the Pew Research Center’s analysis found that the Peacock’s news division has not displayed the bias of MSNBC.

“The distinct tone of MSNBC was not reflected in the coverage of its broadcast sibling, NBC News,” the Pew study reports. “Even though it has correspondents appear on their cable shows and even anchor some programs on there, the broadcast channel showed no such ideological tilt.”

During the Republican National Convention, crowds derisively chanted “NBC! NBC!” whenever the subject of media bias arose. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly has been similarly hammering the Peacock relentlessly on his top-rated “The O’Reilly Factor.”

Yet, according to the study, “NBC’s coverage of (GOP veep nominee Sarah) Palin was the most positive of any TV organization studied, including Fox News.”

The Pew study singled out MSNBC for its significantly less negative coverage of Obama. Negative stories about the Dem candidate in the media overall totaled 29%, but only 14% of the cabler’s stories on Obama were negative. About 73% of MSNBC stories on McCain were negative, compared with 57% in the broader media landscape.

Fox News ran more negative stories on Obama than did the rest of the media — 40% vs. 29%. Fox News trailed other media in positive reports on Obama — 25% vs. 36%. Positive stories about McCain accounted for 22% of Fox News reports but only 14% in the rest of the media, while 40% of Fox News stories on McCain were negative vs. 57% in the rest of the media.

Yet even on Fox News, the study noted, McCain’s “negative stories outweighed positive ones by almost two to one.” Also, the proportion of negative stories about Obama and McCain were identical at 40% of all Fox News stories about each candidate. And while Fox trailed other media in positive stories about Obama, the cabler reported more positive stories on Obama than on McCain — 25% vs. 22%.

“In cable, the evidence firmly suggests there now really is an ideological divide between two of the three channels, at least in their coverage of the campaign,” the study said. “On the evening newscasts of the three traditional networks, in contrast, there is no such ideological split. Indeed, on the nightly newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC, coverage tends to be more neutral and generally less negative than elsewhere.”

Both MSNBC and Fox declined to comment on the study, which reviewed 2,412 stories from 48 print, cable, network and online news outlets between Sept. 8 and Oct. 16.