The Color of News: How Different Media Have Covered the General Election

[Source:] Wednesday, October 29, 2008 — Where one goes for news about the presidential campaign makes a real difference, according to a study of campaign coverage released today by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The study offers hard evidence of an ideological divide between two of the three cable channels—MSNBC and Fox News—while CNN’s coverage resided somewhere in the middle. On MSNBC, the story was more favorable for Barack Obama, and unfavorable for John McCain than in the press overall. The Fox News Channel provided nearly mirror image of MSNBC’s coverage. CNN’s coverage, while more typical of the press generally, was also more negative than the press overall.

Traditional network news, in contrast, did not reflect any such ideological divisions. The nightly network newscasts tended to be more neutral, and less negative, than the press overall. On the morning network shows, Sarah Palin was a bigger story than she was in the media in general.

In print news, online stories tended to be driven by poll data. On newspaper front pages, which tended to be the morning-after stories, McCain was covered more harshly than in the overall media.

These are some of the findings of the new PEJ study, which examined 2,412 stories from 48 outlets during the time period from September 8 to October 16. The report is a companion to a study released October 22 about the tone of coverage overall. This new report breaks down the coverage of tone by specific media sectors—print, cable news, network television and online. The Project, which is part of the Pew Research Center in Washington D.C., is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Read a PDF of the full report.
Read the full report online.

Among the report’s major findings:

  • MSNBC stood out for having less negative coverage of Obama than the press generally (14% of stories vs. 29% in the press overall) and for having more negative stories about McCain (73% of its coverage vs. 57% in the press overall).
  • On Fox News, in contrast, coverage of Obama was more negative than the norm (40% of stories vs. 29% overall) and less positive (25% of stories vs. 36% generally). For McCain, the news channel was somewhat more positive (22% vs. 14% in the press overall) and substantially less negative (40% vs. 57% in the press overall). Yet even here, his negative stories outweighed positive ones by almost 2 to 1.
  • The distinct tone of MSNBC was not reflected in the coverage of its broadcast sibling, NBC News. 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.
  • NBC’s coverage of Palin was the most positive of any TV organization studied, including Fox News.
  • At night, the newscasts of the three traditional broadcast networks stood out for being more neutral—and also less negative—than most other news outlets. Morning shows of the networks, by contrast, more closely resembled the media generally in tone. Overall, 44% of the morning show stories were clearly negative, compared with 34% on the nightly news and 42% in the press overall.
The study is for immediate release at our website,