Overall, both candidates received more negative stories than positive ones. But for the full eight weeks studied, the gap was about half as big for Obama (11 points) as it was for Romney (23 points).
That difference disappears if horse-race coverage-stories focused on tactics, strategy and the question of who was winning-are removed from the equation. Then, negative stories about Obama outnumbered positive by 17 points and for Romney by 18 points.
Even then, however, there were differences in the press portrayal depending on the specific focus of the mainstream news coverage. In general, Romney received somewhat more advantage, or at least less negative news coverage relative to Obama, on fundraising and personal topics. Obama enjoyed some edge, if one looks at the differential between positive and negative, on policy. Beyond that, the differences were relatively minor.
For Obama, the tone of that horse-race coverage overall was almost equally balanced between favorable and unfavorable stories. For Romney, even with his initial post-debate bounce, the horse-race narrative has been far more negative than positive, by a factor of about than 3-to-1.
On coverage of policy issues-both foreign and domestic-the media narrative was harsh for both candidates. When domestic and foreign policy were taken together, Obama’s negative coverage exceeded positive by 3-to-1. For Romney it was almost 5-to-1.
When it came to examining the candidates’ public records, for both candidates negative coverage outweighed positive coverage by roughly 2-to-1.
This negative assessment of the candidates’ public records to some degree may reflect the campaigns’ attacks on the trail and in the advertising wars. An August PEJ report on the master character narratives of the campaign found that the most common narrative about Obama was that he had not done enough for the economy while the most prominent narrative about Romney was that he had been a vulture capitalist during his career at Bain.
The only major theme for which both candidates enjoyed more positive than negative coverage were personal stories about the two men and their families. There, Romney’s positive coverage exceeded negative coverage by about 2-to-1 while the margin was 3-to-2 for Obama.