Harvard University’s Center on the Press, Politics and Public Police has released a 51-page report (PDF) on coverage of the upcoming election. This finding is hardly remarkable:

Overall, Democrats also have received more positive coverage than Republicans (35% of stories vs. 26%), while Republicans received more negative coverage than Democrats (35% vs. 26%). For both parties, a plurality of stories, 39%, were neutral or balanced.

The authors of the study, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, offered several explanations (besides liberal bias) for the discrepancy. Nonetheless, an interesting finding.

Perhaps more interesting is this bit on CNN vs. Fox News:

The CNN programming studied tended to cast a negative light on Republican candidates—by a margin of three-to-one. Four-in-ten stories (41%) were clearly negative while just 14% were positive and 46% were neutral. The network provided negative coverage of all three main candidates with McCain fairing the worst (63% negative) and Romney fairing a little better than the others only because a majority of his coverage was neutral.

It’s not that Democrats, other than Obama, fared well on CNN either. Nearly half of the Illinois Senator’s stories were positive (46%), vs. just 8% that were negative. But both Clinton and Edwards ended up with more negative than positive coverage overall.

So while coverage for Democrats overall was a bit more positive than negative, that was almost all due to extremely favorable coverage for Obama.

… The programming studied on Fox News offered a somewhat more positive picture of Republicans and more negative one of Democrats compared with other media outlets. Fox News stories about a Republican candidate were most likely to be neutral (47%), with the remainder more positive than negative (32% vs. 21% negative). The bulk of that positive coverage went to Giuliani (44% positive), while McCain still suffered from unflattering coverage (20% positive vs. 35% negative).

When it came to Democratic candidates, the picture was more negative. Again, neutral stories had a slight edge (39%), followed by 37% negative and 24% positive. And, in marked contrast from the rest of the media, coverage of Obama was twice as
negative as positive: 32% negative vs. 16% positive and 52% neutral.

But any sense here that the news channel was uniformly positive about Republicans or negative about Democrats is not manifest in the data.

Compared to CNN’s coverage, Fox News looks rather, well, “Fair and Balanced.”

We’ve created a frame where Fox News is dismissed as overtly partisan, when in reality several objective studies have found that it is relatively objective. Perhaps it just appears rabidly right-wing when compared to its cable news brethren.

Apart from the disparity in coverage, some other interesting findings:

In all, 63% of the campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign. That is nearly four times the number of stories about the personal backgrounds of the candidates (17%) or the candidates’ ideas and policy proposals (15%). And just 1% of stories examined the candidates’ records or past public performance, the study found.

The press’ focus on fundraising, tactics and polling is even more evident if one looks at how stories were framed rather than the topic of the story. Just 12% of stories examined were presented in a way that explained how citizens might be affected by the election, while nearly nine-out-of-ten stories (86%) focused on matters that largely impacted only the parties and the candidates. Those numbers, incidentally, match almost exactly the campaign-centric orientation of coverage found on the eve of the primaries eight years ago.

All of these findings seem to be at sharp variance with what the public says it wants from campaign reporting. A new poll by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted for this report finds that about eight-in ten of Americans say they want more coverage of the candidates’ stances on issues, and majorities want more on the record and personal background, and backing of the candidates, more about lesser-known candidates and more about debates.

Yes, the press is in a rut in its coverage of candidates. I think that’s the problem with having the same reporter cover the same candidate for 18 months. They get burned out and start looking for new angles to cover. What we end up getting is extremely detailed reporting where every small move is detailed and explored for meaning. They miss the forest while staring at the tree bark.