From the conventions until the first debate, a period of improving polls for Obama, Romney suffered his period of the most negative coverage; just 4% of stories about him were positive while 52% were negative. Coverage of Obama during this period was fairly evenly split (20% positive vs. 24% negative). That narrative reversed sharply with the first debate. For the next two weeks, Romney saw the mixed treatment (23% positive vs. 23% negative) while Obama was caught in the critical loop, with 12% positive and 37% negative. After the second debate, coverage returned to its more general pattern, with an edge for Obama.
This treatment in the mainstream media also differs markedly from what the study finds in the newer realms of social media: Twitter, Facebook and blogs. There, the narrative about both men has been relentlessly negative and relatively unmoved by campaign events that have shifted the mainstream narrative-more a barometer of social media user mood than a reflection of candidate action. On Twitter, for instance, the conversation about the campaign has consistently been harsher for Romney than for Obama. On Facebook, the tone improved for Obama in October with the debates, despite the sense that the president had stumbled in the first one. And in the blogosphere, neither candidate has seen a sustained edge in the narrative in the eight weeks studied.
The study also reveals the degree to which the two cable channels that have built themselves around ideological programming, MSNBC and Fox, stand out from other mainstream media outlets. And MSNBC stands out the most. On that channel, 71% of the segments studied about Romney were negative in nature, compared with just 3% that were positive-a ratio of roughly 23-to-1. On Fox, 46% of the segments about Obama were negative, compared with 6% that were positive-a ratio of about 8-to-1 negative. These made them unusual among channels or outlets that identified themselves as news organizations.