Garbage In, Garbage Out

CBS News is reporting that a study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that President Obama had gotten more negative media coverage than any other 2012 presidential candidate over the past five months.

Pew found that Mr. Obama was the subject of negative assessments nearly four times as often as he was the subject of positive assessments. It found he received “positive” coverage nine percent of the time, “neutral” coverage 57 percent of the time and “negative” coverage 34 percent of the time.

Pardon me if I am skeptical of this study and of their definition of media. It claims to have drawn from over 11,500 news outlets “including local and national broadcasts, news websites and blogs.”

The study used the amount of attention a candidate received and the “tone of that coverage.” They put the tone into positive, neutral, and negative categories. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, they used the following methodology.

To assess the tone of coverage, PEJ researchers then employed computer algorithmic software from Crimson Hexagon. Researchers conducted a tone analysis and then “trained” the algorithm to follow the same rules as they had themselves. PEJ also conducted inter-coder tests to ensure the computer coding was replicable and valid by comparing human coding to the results derived by the algorithm. The project also had different people build the algorithms separately to ensure that they were achieving consistent results. Each computer algorithm was then additionally tested for reliability by having multiple researchers review the content assessed and the results.

The tone analysis was conducted on two different samples. The first was of the coverage and commentary on more than 11,500 news outlets, based on their RSS feeds. While the content is text based, the material on various television news sites often closely resembled the stories that had aired on television, and in some cases were exact transcripts. The second was from hundreds of thousands of blogs. (Facebook and Twitter feeds were not included after researchers found that the political assessment offered there was typically quite brief or referred to blog or news content.)

Anytime you use a computer algorithm, it is susceptible to tampering and tweaking regardless of the so-called safeguards that the researchers supposedly employed. It goes back to that old saying about computers, if you put garbage in, you’ll get garbage out.

The study does acknowledge that blogs are more critical of candidates than other new media outlets. This I would believe. However, the general results from this study lump blogs in with the rest of the media. In relation to the coverage of Obama, this will tend to raise the negatives while hiding the generally uncritical reporting on Obama by the mainstream media. Digging deeper into this study, you find that blogs on both ends of the political spectrum are harsher towards Obama than the news media in general. However, the study does not include a similar breakout for the mainstream media like they do for blogs. In other words, you cannot compare the tone of coverage given by blogs with that of the mainstream media.

Reports such as these that “show” more negative coverage of Obama lets the mainstream media get away with their fawning and generally uncritical reporting on him. If the mainstream media were actually taking a negative approach towards Obama, you would see in-depth, critical stories hammering his administration over Project Gunwalker. As it is, you have Sharyl Attkisson at CBS, William LaJeunesse at Fox, and sometimes Richard Solarno at the LA Times writing about it. The New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, CNN, ABC, and the rest of the elite media would just as soon not write about Project Gunwalker. They’d rather focus on the astro-turfed Occupy Wall Street nonsense.


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