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The Globe and Mail

Negativity dominates U.S. election news and social media, study finds

It's not just the ads: even the news coverage of the 2012 race for the White House has been negative.

A study issued Friday by the Pew Research Center found that the tone of campaign news coverage from Aug. 27 to Oct. 21 was more negative than positive toward both candidates.

But if people are dismayed by that tone in the mainstream media, they should steer clear of social media, where the Center found commentary was overwhelmingly negative on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.

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In the mainstream media, Barack Obama enjoyed a significant advantage: while the Center deemed 30 per cent of stories about the president "clearly unfavourable," it found that 19 per cent were favourable (and 51 per cent were mixed), giving a net negative result of 11 percentage points. Meanwhile, 38 per cent of stories about Mitt Romney were deemed unfavourable, while only 15 per cent were favourable (and 47 per cent were mixed), giving a negative differential of 23 percentage points – or more than twice Mr. Obama's differential.

But those who take the study as proof that the mainstream media are biased toward left-leaning candidates should tread cautiously.

Almost all of the difference in tone can be chalked up to the media's interest in so-called horse-race coverage: stories about campaign strategy and how the candidates are performing in polls. Stories that covered the horse-race angle were deemed 28 per cent positive toward Mr. Obama, but only 15 per cent positive toward Mr. Romney, reflecting the president's generally better performance in the polls and wide acknowledgment that Mr. Romney's campaign was in disarray until early October.

Campaign stories that didn't cover the horse-race were almost exactly the same toward each candidate: 15 per cent positive toward Mr. Obama and 14 per cent positive toward Mr. Romney, and each candidate was the subject of 32 per cent of negative stories.

Still, tone of coverage varies wildly between news outlets. When Fox News covered Mr. Obama, only 6 per cent of stories which contained an evident tone were positive toward the president, while 46 per cent were negative. But on the other side of the spectrum, only 3 per cent of stories on MSNBC about Mr. Romney were positive, while a whopping 71 per cent went negative.

That jibes with the way each of those two partisan outlets has covered the candidates in the final, fraught week: MSNBC has shown Mr. Obama at live events, but often cut to in-studio news coverage during Romney rallies, while Fox has done the opposite. Fox has also pushed hard on the Benghazi attack story while MSNBC and CNN favoured covering the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the Obama-boosting display of bipartisanship by the president and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie).

But if MSNBC is perceived to be in Mr. Obama's pocket, it has nothing on Twitter, where the Center found, "negative sentiment [toward Romney] outstripped positive sentiment by anywhere from 38 to 49 points."

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"As one measure of how little the tone of the conversation in the Twitter universe seems to be swayed by real-time events," the Center wrote, "the week of September 17-23 when the now infamous 47 per cent video was released, 62 per cent of the conversation about Mr. Romney was negative – only marginally more negative than the conversation during the week of the Republican Convention (59 per cent)."

Facebook users and bloggers were kinder to both candidates, but they were still more negative than positive.

The study, by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, analyzed 2,457 stories from 49 news outlets, including the three U.S. broadcast networks, the three main cable news outlets, the front pages of 11 newspapers, the 12 most-read news sites, programming by NPR and PBS, and radio headlines by ABC and CBS news services.

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