Media Coverage of the Presidential Election: Fair or Biased?

Democrats Receive More Overall News Coverage than Republicans


Published: August 28, 2008

This election season, the Democrats have received substantially more news coverage than have their Republican counterparts.  According to The Swamp, the Chicago Tribune’s Washington office, about 80 percent of all election stories this summer featured Barack Obama, while an average of 55 percent of news stories mentioned John McCain.  In fact, the only time McCain received more news coverage than Obama was when he released an ad in which he criticized the large amount of news coverage that Obama receives, The Swamp also reported.

But whether Obama’s news coverage is more positive than negative—and what effect the discrepancy in news coverage between parties will have on the election—is less cut-and-dry.

“Most voters know who they are voting for, regardless of media coverage.  Media, however, can influence the swing or independent vote,” said Paul Levinson, Fordham professor of communication and media studies.

“Obama receives so much media coverage because he represents something genuinely new and original in American politics,” said Levinson.  “[He is] someone of African heritage running for, and becoming a nominee of a major party for, president.  Hillary is something genuinely new and original, too: the first woman ever to come close to receiving a major party’s nomination for president (and a former first lady).”

“Obama’s media coverage is more positive than negative,” said Levinson.  “McCain’s seems more negative than positive.  But McCain can’t help but get negative media coverage when he identifies with the Bush administration… and stumbles in his speech.”

Research shows, however, that media coverage of the candidates vacillates greatly.  A study from the Center for Excellence in Journalism shows that in 2007, Obama received far more positive coverage than any of the other possible candidates.

However, this appears to have changed.  The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University found that ABC, NBC and CBS were tougher on Obama than on McCain after Hillary Clinton dropped out of the race and Obama clinched the nomination.

The study reports that “since the primaries ended, on-air evaluations of Obama have been 72 percent negative, a 46 percent increase in negative coverage since the beginning of the primaries.  That’s worse than McCain’s coverage, which has been 57 percent negative, an 11 percent change since the beginning of the primaries during the same time period.”

Why the change?  Some attribute it to Obama saturation: people are simply getting tired of hearing about him. reported that a recent poll found that 48 percent of Americans believe that there is too much media coverage of Obama, and 38 percent believe there is not enough about McCain.  Another poll cited in the same article stated that 49 percent of Americans feel that the press is pro-Obama.

Pat Wyllie, FCLC ’09, feels that the media does, in fact, seem supportive of McCain. “I love how the media continues to report about John McCain being a ‘maverick,’ and supposedly being willing to buck the Republican line. When you look at many of the policy ideas that he has presented, they are very similar to what we have seen from the current administration,” he said.

“I’ve actually been impressed by the media not being totally biased,” said Yasmine Kamel, FCLC ’11, adding that she does not believe that Obama receives too much media coverage.  “I guess Obama gets a bit more attention because he has some kind of ‘star quality’…and the media is always biased towards that,” Kamel added.  “But I think, for the most part, things have been pretty fair.”

Wyllie said,  “I think that  McCain complaining about the lack of media coverage of his campaign while Obama was in Europe was laughable.”  During Obama’s overseas trip, McCain famously sent an email to supporters censuring the media’s love affair with Obama, according to

Wyllie also stated his belief that within the two campaigns’ differing marketing approaches, Obama’s is more effective. “He has spent money on national infrastructure…and voter registration drives…as opposed to exclusively running ads like McCain has been doing… and that will really help him on election day,” he said.

Perhaps McCain’s most famous response to Obama’s extensive media coverage?  A campaign ad in which he compares Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and suggests that Obama is too big a “celebrity” to lead the country.

“I thought the ad was clearly born of jealousy in the McCain campaign, about the great international response to Obama’s overseas tour,” said Levinson.  “I doubt that ad will convince anyone not to vote for Obama—it will only make people who don’t already like Obama feel better.  People who are opposed to Obama don’t really care about his ‘celebrity’ —they’re just looking for any way they can to attack him.”

Monique Fortune, professor of communication and media studies at FCLC, said:  “Political campaigns always have the smack of ‘show business’. The speeches. The radio and television ads. The Web sites. The town meetings… There is always flash before substance.”

In terms of media outlets, Obama and his family have received coverage in very different venues than have the McCains.  Obama, along with his wife, Michelle, and his two young daughters, appeared on the cover of the July 23s issue of People magazine and the June 21 cover of Us Weekly, in addition to the August issue of Essence.  Traditionally, both publications are celebrity-oriented.  Michelle also graces the current cover of Ebony magazine, and Obama’s daughters were interviewed on the celebrity news magazine show “Extra.”

In contrast, McCain was interviewed and featured on the cover of Fortune magazine.  The article focused on his planned economic policy.

“The American public has to get to know Obama and his family,” said Fortune. “The coverage is vital to their success. [Their] message—Obama has a strong and energized family, and he is ready to bring that growth, energy and youthfulness to the White House.”

However, it seems as though McCain’s 22-year-old daughter has managed to add some “youthfulness” to the McCain campaign. A Columbia University grad who majored in art history, Megan runs the McCain Blogette from her father’s campaign trail.  She often blogs about fashion and political figures’ shoes.  She wants to be a fashion designer, famously called Obama “sexy” and voted for John Kerry in 2004.  Could Megan be a secret weapon for the McCain campaign?

“She sounds like an interesting character,” said Kamel, who classifies herself as a democrat, “but I don’t think it would change my opinion of McCain.”

“I think Obama has a very appealing and photogenic family, much like JFK,” said Levinson.  “McCain, of course, is much older, and can’t compete on that level.  I think Obama and his family’s appearances, although very engaging, won’t have that much effect on the election—which will be decided ….by substantive, not cosmetic, factors.”

Fortune stated that although it seems that many publications have an interest in McCain, “the reality is that more Americans spend time with People magazine or Us Weekly than The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.  Both candidates need access to as many voters as they can get.  Like it or not, McCain and Obama are in the celebrity spotlight and must literally play to the press.”

Fortune said:  “The media coverage for the 2008 presidential campaign ranges in quality and points of view. I urge all observers of this political process to keep their minds open and consider a range of voices…This is not a time for Americans to just be recipients of messages, it is also a time for Americans to be more discerning and proactive about the messages they are accepting from a range of media outlets.”