The press exacted a price on the “inevitable” Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who was subjected to the closest scrutiny among his rivals, says a massive analysis of candidate coverage released Monday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The coverage “reveals that Romney endured more media ‘vetting’ of his record and personal character than the other Republican contenders,” the study says, noting that the press was focused in particular on Mr. Romney’s personal wealth and time spent at Bain Capital, a private equity investment firm.
Such attention certainly played into the evolving popular narrative about the Republican front-runner among Democratic strategists and some conservatives who consistently frame Mr. Romney as a millionaire who is out of touch with the general public.
There was a distinct turning point for such trials, though.
After Mr. Romney won the primary in Michigan in late February, the news media deemed his nomination as “essentially inevitable.” Coverage overwhelmed that of his rivals, and the tone — previously mixed or negative — became “solidly positive,” the study finds, perhaps underscoring suggestions from Republican strategists who insisted that Mr. Romney was the choice of both the White House and press for the nominee in the first place.
Coverage of President Obama, meanwhile, reveals that journalists treated him “more as a presidential candidate than a chief executive for months,” the study says. Two-thirds of the stories centered on Mr. Obama’s political strategy and momentum, while a mere 21 precent examined his connection with foreign or domestic policy issues.
The study itself used computer-assisted content analysis of more than 11,000 news outlets for coverage from Jan. 2 to April 15, plus a closer sampling of 52 key news organizations covering print, broadcast and online content, including coverage dating to November.
As it has in past presidential elections, the press has fixated on the horse race rather than the more arduous task of covering the candidates’ public records or policy statements. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the stories have centered on strategy, daily polls, advertising and fundraising, though that is far less than the 2008 White House race, when 80 percent of new accounts wallowed in the horse race.
The analysis also reveals that Rick Santorum was subjected to a “roller coaster” of positive and negative coverage before he suspended his campaign, while Newt Gingrich enjoyed only one week of press attention that was notably positive.
Ironically, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas garnered the most-positive coverage of any of his rivals. But it was paltry. Mr. Paul received the least amount of coverage, drawing just one-eighth of the amount of attention that Mr. Romney had, for example.
“The glaring lack of attention in the news coverage reflected a media consensus that despite a loyal following and some respectable primary showings, the libertarian-leaning candidate could not capture the Republican nomination,” the study says.
See the complete findings at www.journalism.org.