Lessons Learned About the Media from the 2012 Election

One of the key findings in the new State of the News Media report is that at a time of diminishing reporting resources, many newsmakers, in political, public and corporate life, are finding new ways to get their messages to the public—often with little or no journalistic vetting.

The five key lessons about the media and the 2012 presidential race include evidence of how the candidates and their allies were more effective in getting their messages through.

1) In the 2012 race for the White House, journalists played a smaller role in shaping what voters heard about the presidential candidates. In the 2012 campaign, only about one quarter of the statements in the media about the character and records of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney came directly from journalists while about half came from political partisans. In 2000, half of the statements about the presidential candidates came from the media and only about one-third from the partisans.

2) The candidates and their allies used that leverage to push negative messages about their opponent through the media. Almost three-quarter of the statements about each candidate’s character and record were negative compared with less than 30% positive. In 2008, most of those statements about Obama were positive while McCain’s was moderately more negative than positive.

3) Horserace coverage was down, but coverage of the issues didn’t fill that gap. In 2012, the amount of coverage devoted to tactics, strategy and polls declined to 38%, down from 53% in 2008. But that attention to policy issues—both foreign and domestic—barely budged, inching up from to 22% in 2012 compared with 20% four years earlier.

4) Obama made greater use of social media messaging than Romney, but the overall conversation in social media was negative toward both men. In the period studied by Pew Research, for example, the Obama team produced about 25 times more Twitter posts than the Romney campaign. But on blogs, Twitter and Facebook, users were consistently more negative than positive about both candidates—although Romney fared somewhat worse.

5) More spending on political ads did not translate into a bigger audience for media outlets. A record $2.9 billion was spent on political advertising on local television, but news audiences fell in the key local news timeslots. The overall audience for broadcast network news also declined and on the three major cable news channels, CNN, MSNC and Fox News, the overall audience barely inched up.

Related Research

“The Master Character Narratives in Campaign 2012”

“Winning the Media Campaign 2012”

“How the Presidential Candidates Use the Web and Social Media”

“State of the News Media 2013” chapters on local television news, network news and cable news