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Pew study: Campaign coverage negative overall, but Romney boosted by first debate

News coverage of the presidential campaign has been consistently negative, media researchers reported Friday, but it's been significantly friendlier to Republican nominee Mitt Romney since he was widely declared to have won his first debate with President Barack Obama in early October.

M. Alex Johnson M. Alex Johnson is a reporter for NBC News. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

The report, by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, noted a clear turning point in mainstream news coverage beginning Oct. 4, after Obama appeared subdued and distracted during the previous night's debate in Denver.

Before the debate, 44 percent of news stories about Romney were "negative," as defined by the researchers, compared with 11 percent that were "positive" (the rest were considered neutral). Afterward, only 30 percent of his coverage was negative, while 20 percent was positive.

Coverage of Obama swung the other way in lockstep. Twenty-seven percent of his pre-debate coverage was negative and 22 percent was positive; post-debate, the split was 36 percent negative to only 13 percent positive.

Pew examined and classified major campaign news stories on 11 newspapers' front pages, the 12 largest news websites (including msnbc.com/NBCNews.com), the three broadcast networks, the three cable news networks, and three radio networks, including NPR. "Favorable" and "unfavorable" didn't necessarily mean an individual story made any value judgment about either candidate, Pew said; instead, it could also be a measure of the news in the story, such as another politician's critical remarks.

From tramping through cornfields to munching ice cream cones to holding babies – the time-honored traditions of the campaign trail leave President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney looking surprisingly alike.

The survey covered Aug. 27 through Oct. 21. That includes both party nominating conventions but only the first two of the three presidential debates.

Full coverage of Decision 2012 on NBC Politics

For the entire period, coverage broke down this way:

That's a big difference from 2008. More of Obama's coverage was favorable that year than unfavorable, by 36 percent to 29 percent. Republican nominee John McCain's coverage, by contrast, was even more unfavorable than Romney's has been, at 57 percent negative to 14 percent positive.

Pew theorized that the difference could partly be attributed to the economy, which Obama has overseen for four years as president after having been able to run against it in 2008.

A striking conclusion of the survey is that, contrary to popular perception that campaign coverage is dominated by inside baseball (who's up or down in the polls, tactics and the like), there has actually been much less "horse race" coverage this year.

Such coverage — a perennial target of media scholars and pundits — has made up only 38 percent of news reports this year, down by 15 percentage points from 2008, when it was a clear majority of all coverage at 53 percent. Pew offered no theories on why.

The study also tried to quantify the ideological divide among the cable networks. According to Pew's analysis, Fox News leaned heavily pro-Romney, while MSNBC leaned even more toward Obama:

(CNN came in somewhat more even-handed. Coverage of Obama was about even, but unfavorable coverage of Romney outweighed favorable coverage by a 3-to-1 ratio.

Two important caveats should be noted:

Pew reports that it reviewed the cable networks for only 4½ hours of the day, mainly in the evening, when Fox (Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity) and MSNBC (Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz) schedule programs that are open in their partisanship. The study looked at the networks' dayside programming — when both networks say they strive for impartiality — only from 2 to 2:30 p.m. ET.

Nor does it break down how much of the coverage comes from news agencies like The Associated Press and Reuters — identical versions of which could appear dozens of times across multiple platforms, potentially overweighting their influence.

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