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Originally published October 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 23, 2008 at 10:44 AM

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Study: McCain coverage more negative

Media coverage of the presidential race has not always been glowing for Barack Obama, but it clearly has been negative for John McCain, according to a survey of newspapers, Internet and television news outlets since the end of the national political conventions.

Los Angeles Times

The newspapers

Thirteen publications, eight of which provide material for The Seattle Times, were part of the study. They were:

The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Union-Leader, The MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News, The (Colorado Springs) Gazette, The Modesto Bee.

Source: Pew Research Center

Media coverage of the presidential race has not always been glowing for Barack Obama, but it clearly has been negative for John McCain, according to a survey of newspapers, Internet and television news outlets since the end of the national political conventions.

Slightly fewer than one-third of stories about Obama were negative, more than one-third were positive and about the same number were neutral or mixed. More than half of stories about McCain cast him in a negative light, while fewer than two in 10 were positive, according to Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The media watchdog group assessed the tone of the campaign from early September through the final presidential debate, examining 857 stories from 43 news outlets.

Although the authors said some observers would use the findings to argue the major media have a pro-Obama bias, they said their data did not provide conclusive answers. They noted coverage of Republicans and Democrats in this and other recent presidential elections seemed to have more to do with their success than with party affiliation.

The group's research in 2000, for example, found Democrat Al Gore received a level of negative coverage similar to the level Republican McCain is receiving now. Coverage of then-Gov. George W. Bush that year was more positive than Gore's, but more negative than Obama's this time.

The findings present "a strong suggestion that winning in politics begat winning coverage," the Washington, D.C.-based group found. "Obama's coverage was negative in tone when he was dropping in the polls, and became positive when he began to rise, and it was just so for McCain." The study is available at www.journalism.org.

The Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, saw her media coverage plummet from largely positive to largely negative as reporters increasingly probed her record and mulled her bumpy television interviews.

Roughly two in every five stories about the Alaska governor had a negative tone, while fewer than one-third were positive and one-third were neutral or mixed, the study found.

The findings seemed to debunk the notion spread by Palin backers that her negative coverage focused on personal and family issues — with only 5 percent of stories aimed at those topics.

"The invisible man" has been Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joseph Biden, the review found, noting he was the dominant figure in 6 percent or less of campaign coverage in each week studied — except the week he debated Palin.

Other than relatively positive coverage of that lone debate, the Delaware senator's coverage was "far more negative than Palin's, and nearly as negative as McCain's."

The project's research appears to show how coverage of the candidates has changed over time. In early 2007, before he emerged as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Obama drew three times as many positive stories as negative ones. Somewhat more critical and mixed coverage emerged as primaries dragged out. Since the political conventions, the tone toward the Democrat has bounced around.

But the more powerful trend, running against McCain, was the financial crisis and coverage of his attempts to seize the initiative. Stories on that subject — including accounts of his declaration that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong" — were four times as likely to cast McCain in a negative light, the review found.

The Pew research group focused on many news outlets — from the television networks to CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Web sites and 13 newspapers.

While other organizations have measured individual assertions about the candidates in stories, Pew researchers said they assessed the overall impression the public was likely to take away from each piece. For a story to be deemed as having a negative or positive tone, it had to be clearly so. To be judged negative, for example, the negative assertions in it had to outweigh other assertions by a ratio of at least 1.5 to 1.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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