Political journalism usually relies on a narrative, and a new analysis by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that the overarching stories the media has told about Romney and Obama have been negative about three-quarters of the time for each.
In a campaign dominated by financial concerns, the most common portraits of both Romney and Obama have been connected to the economy. Neither man fares well. The dominant narrative about Obama is that his economic policies haven't worked, Pew found, while that most common story about Romney depicts him as an amoral capitalist who is concerned above all with making money.
If those stories sound familiar, it's because they mimic the attack lines issued by both campaigns: Romney has painted Obama as an ineffective economic steward who has presided over the worst recovery in history, whereas the Obama campaign has worked doggedly to frame Romney as an agent of the 1 percent, whose policies would favor the wealthy.
The parallel is no coincidence, Pew suggests. The study found that campaigns themselves have surpassed the press as the primary source of the stories we hear about our presidential candidates. Campaign messaging, rather than reporting, shapes our perceptions.
"The American news media in its coverage of the candidates appears increasingly to be a conduit of partisan rhetoric and less a source than it once was of independent reporting," said Project for Excellence in Journalism Director Tom Rosenstiel said in a press release. "This may reflect the impact of shrinking newsrooms. But it probably also helps explain why the campaign feels so negative."
This cycle is unique in that both candidates have faced such overwhelmingly negative portrayals. Pew notes that Al Gore in 2000 and President George W. Bush in 2004 faced an avalanche of unfavorable coverage, but 2012 is the first time that the gloominess has applied to both presidential contenders.
It's also worth noting that both Obama and Romney are contending with anemic approval ratings. Obama still struggles to break a 50 percent approval rating amidst a faltering economic recovery, while polls have consistently shown that voters are more likely to dislike Romney personally.
The study analyzed 1,772 statements from more than 800 sources that spanned a range of different media, from prominent newspapers to television broadcasts to websites.