President Obama finished his first year in office with more favorable coverage than other recent presidents received, but his media image has been mainly negative since an early “honeymoon” period, according to a new study by researchers at George Mason and Chapman Universities. According to study director Dr. S. Robert Lichter of George Mason University, “Barack Obama had his honeymoon, but now the party’s over. But there’s a silver lining — his coverage would be envied by other recent presidents.”
This study covers 3859 news stories about the Obama administration that appeared on the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening newscasts, the front page of the New York Times, and Time and Newsweek from January 20 through Dec 31, 2009. We also conducted a separate analysis of 1728 stories on the Fox News Channel “Special Report.” This research was conducted by researchers at George Mason University in Fairfax VA and Chapman University in Orange CA, and coordinated by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA). The researchers examined all evaluations made by reporters and non-partisan sources, i.e., those not affiliated with either political party.
Balanced Is Best: During the first calendar year of his administration, President Obama’s mainstream media coverage was almost perfectly balanced – 49% positive vs. 51% negative evaluations by sources and reporters. He fared best in the New York Times (54% positive) and the news magazines (53% positive) and worst on the three broadcast networks (46% positive).
By contrast, CMPA studies have found that other recent presidents fared badly in the media during their first year in office. On the broadcast networks, George W. Bush received only 23% positive evaluations (vs. 77% negative) in 2001; Bill Clinton had 28% positive evaluations in 1993; and Ronald Reagan had 26% positive evaluations in 1981.
Similarly, in a study of print coverage that combined the New York Times and Washington Post, first-year evaluations of Bush were 25% positive, Clinton’s evaluations were 30% positive, and Reagan’s were 23% positive. Thus, Obama’s balanced media coverage in 2009 was still about twice as positive as the coverage received by Bush and Reagan during comparable time periods.
Bad Press Rising: However, President Obama’s overall balance in good and bad press masks a sharp downturn after an early “honeymoon” period. Presidential evaluations from January through April were 59% positive (v. 41% negative), but they dropped to 46% positive from May through July and only 39% positive from August through December.
Positive Examples: “The president promised change, and on this score he has delivered.” – Bryan Walsh, Time, October 5; “He has made the country comfortable with himself as president.” — Jeff Greenfield, CBS, April 26
Negative Examples: “However much he has been on, he has not yet made the case [for health care reform].” – Bob Schieffer, CBS, Sept 18; “But today President Obama, in the eyes of a lot of environmentalists, fell short on that topic [global warming].” -Brian Williams, NBC, Sept 22.
Policies Hit Hardest: Mr. Obama’s policies have attracted more criticism than his personal leadership. During 2009 evaluations of the administration’s policies by reporters and sources were only 37% positive (vs. 63% negative)
The president’s economic stimulus plan garnered the best press – 49% positive – and the financial bailouts of various industries the worst – 33% positive. On other issues, coverage of the administration’s general economic policy was 41% positive, coverage of health care reform was 39% positive, as was coverage of the war in Afghanistan, and the war on terror received 34% positive comments.
The FOX Factor: President Obama fared far worse on Fox News Channel’s “Special Report” than on the broadcast networks or in the national press – only 22% positive (vs. 78% negative) evaluations. [We analyzed the first half-hour of “Special Report,” which most resembles the broadcast network newscasts in format.]
Unlike the other outlets we analyzed, FOX has been consistently negative in the tone of its coverage, with 21% positive evaluations from January through April, 19% positive from May through July, and 24% positive from August through December. Like the other outlets, FOX was most critical of Mr. Obama’s policies, which received only 14% positive evaluations.
Negative Examples: “..the president’s story does not make any sense.” Jim Angle, June 3; “His quest to secure the 2016 Olympics for Chicago failed in spectacular fashion.” – Bret Baier, Oct 2
CMPA is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, which is affiliated with George Mason University. It has monitored every presidential election and every new administration since 1988 using the same methodology.
January 25, 2010