Study: Media Elite's Campaign News More Biased than Talk Radio

October 30th, 2007 6:55 PM

According to a new study, those news organizations that hold themselves up as the most neutral and professional — big newspapers, the broadcast networks and taxpayer-subsidized National Public Radio — are actually producing campaign stories that are the most tilted in favor of Democrats, while online news and talk radio have actually been the most balanced.

The study, released Monday from the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, found newspapers and broadcast TV outlets devoted far more time to covering the Democratic candidates than the Republicans and that the tone of those stories was much more favorable to the Democrats, mirroring the results of a Media Research Center study released in August.

The PEJ study looked at a wide array of media — broadcast and cable TV, liberal and conservative talk radio, public radio, newspapers and the Internet — but in most cases used sampling techniques to keep the number of stories to a manageable amount. For daytime cable TV, for example, the group looked at just a half-hour per day of CNN, MSNBC and Fox; for newspapers, the researchers only read stories that appeared on the front-page.

Nevertheless, the study — which looked at campaign coverage from January 1 through May 31 — offers additional evidence that the elite news media are tipping in favor of the Democrats, in both amount of coverage and the tone of coverage. According to the report, here’s how the researchers measured the tone of each campaign story:

While reading or listening to a story, coders tally up all the comments that have either a negative or positive tone to the reporting. Direct and indirect quotes are counted. In order for a story either positive or negative, it must have 1.5 times the amount of positive or negative comments (with an exception for 2 to 3, which is coded as neutral). If the headline or lead has a positive or negative tone, it should be counted twice into the total value. Also counted twice for tone are the first three paragraphs or first four sentences, whichever comes first.

Using that methodology, the researchers found that the news sources that hold themselves up as the most objective — newspapers, the three broadcast morning shows, the three broadcast network evening newscasts and NPR — were in fact the most tilted, all in favor of the Democrats. At the same time, cable news, commercial talk radio and online news were overall more balanced (with conservative and liberal talk radio basically cancelling each other out).

Some key details from the massive report.

National Public Radio: According to the report, “like the media overall, the first 30 minutes NPR’s ‘Morning Edition’ produced more stories about Democratic candidates than Republicans (41% vs. 24%). What was different was how little negative coverage Democrats received, especially compared with all other media. Stories about a Democratic candidate were more seven times more positive than negative: 41% positive vs. 6% negative.” For Republicans, the comparable figures are 30 percent positive vs. 20 percent negative.

Newspapers: The researchers examined the front pages of 13 daily newspapers, checking the New York Times every day and a dozen other papers every other day. “Democrats got much more positive coverage in the daily papers examined than they did elsewhere. Fully 59% of all stories about Democrats had a clear, positive message vs. 11% that carried a negative tone. That is roughly double the percentage of positive stories that we found in the media generally....For the top tier Democrats, the positive tilt was even more the case than for Democrats in general.”

Evening Newscasts: “The tone of coverage in the 30-minute evening newscasts was much more positive toward the Democrats than Republicans.” An accompanying chart shows that nearly four in ten evening news stories about Democrats (39.5%) were rated as positive, while just 17.1 percent were coded as negative. For Republicans, the figures were reversed: 37.2 percent negative, vs. 18.6 percent positive.

According to the raw data tables appended to the report, the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric had the biggest tilt in favor of the Democrats and against Republicans, while the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams was the most balanced (but still pro-Democratic).

Morning Shows: Unlike an earlier MRC study of TV’s morning shows, this study looked at just the first half-hour of each two- or three-hour program. But the report found the same tilted agenda uncovered by MRC: “the [morning] shows produced almost twice as many stories focused on Democratic candidates than on Republicans (51% vs. 27%).

Exploring the raw data tables appended to the report, the morning shows look nearly as tilted as the evening news, with Democrats benefitting from 43.4 percent positive stories vs. 17.6 percent negative stories, compared to Republicans 26.8 percent positive vs. 31 percent negative.

Cable, Online and Talk Shows: The PEJ study found cable news overall to be just slightly pro-Democratic, with Democratic coverage 34% positive vs. 25% negative, compared with 29 percent positive and 30 percent negative for the GOP. MSNBC was the most pro-Democratic, Fox the most pro-Republican, with CNN somewhere in between.

The online sample — a survey of the top stories at, Yahoo! News,, Google News and AOL News — contained very few campaign stories, just 104 in five months. The tone of these stories was practically the same for both Republicans and Democrats, with twice as many positive stories as negative ones.

For talk radio, the group looked at both conservative and liberal talk radio, with the results basically balancing each other out — 14 to 18 percent positive for the Democrats and Republicans, respectively, compared to 67 and 70 percent negative. With one exception, the liberal hosts were the most partisan, never praising any of the top GOP candidates or criticizing Barack Obama or John Edwards. Hillary Clinton, however, the subject of more negative than positive reviews on the liberal shows — 17 percent positive vs. 33 percent negative.

Some news stories on this study have misleadingly charged that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has received mostly negative coverage, such as today’s (Tuesday's) New York Post:

If there’s no such thing as bad publicity, Hillary Rodham Clinton is walloping Barack Obama — earning twice as many negative stories, according to a new media survey.

The former first lady has been the chief media obsession of the TV campaign, generating more coverage — good and bad — than any other candidate, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

But to reach that conclusion, one must count conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity alongside supposedly objective news sources like ABC, CBS, NBC and the New York Times.

While the report does not detail the tone of Clinton’s by each media source, it does report that conservative talk radio accounted for “nearly 20%” of the 294 stories examined, and that “nearly nine-out-of-ten Clinton segments in conservative talk (86%) were clearly negative in tone.” Apply some arithmetic and the tone of Clinton’s coverage — without conservative talk radio — instantly becomes mostly favorable: roughly 33% positive, vs. 26% negative.

In other words, while Hillary may not be the darling of either liberal or conservative talk radio, the media elite are still showering her with lots of good press.