The US election is undoubtedly one of the most significant events in world politics. This year’s campaign has been among the closest in history, and as always the media has played an important role in documenting the battle between the incumbent President Barak Obama and the pretender to his throne, Mitt Romney.
Social media has offered an ever-changing, exciting way for the candidates to engage with voters and for members of the public to express their opinions about the race to the White House.
But has media coverage of the 2012 election represented a significant change to previous campaigns? Has coverage been balanced and unbiased? Have the candidates been seen in a positive light, or have they been accused of playing political games, reducing the contest to a choice between the lesser of two evils?
These are all questions that need to be explored, as they provide an insight into how modern media plays it role, undoubtedly a major one, in what is arguably the most important global political event of the past, and the next, four years.
What made 2012 different?
Perhaps the most significant difference between the 2012 and 2008 campaigns has been the general atmosphere surrounding the candidates in the US, and the way that has fed and been influenced by media coverage. While 2008’s Barak Obama represented an historic choice, promising hope and change, his identity has transformed into one of an encumbered incumbent who has struggled to lead the country to economic recovery. This difference in general opinion has been noticeable throughout the campaign, and may have played a role in the election remaining as close as it has right up until election day.
Another difference between the 2012 and 2008 campaigns has been the significance of social media. While social media played a role in Obama’s victory four years ago, this year’s campaign has seen candidates really attempt to harness the power of this new platform in a more noticeable manner.
Voters are turning to the internet in higher numbers, and the Pew Research Center noted that 35% of voters said they had watched political videos online in 2008, while that number has increased by 20% in 2012 to include 55% of registered voters.
As the development of media in general demonstrates the impact of social media, it should come as no surprise that the campaigns have recognised the importance of using online platforms to communicate with voters, and Twitter messages from both candidates’ teams have become an increasingly frequent occurrence throughout the campaign.
Social media has also been used as a tool to combat voter apathy in a bid to get as many Americans to turn out and cast their ballots as possible.
Both Obama and Romney have taken to Twitter to urge Americans to vote.
As to be expected, the economy dominated the media coverage of the 2012 campaign, counting for 10% of coverage, down from 15% in 2008. Other issues that received the most attention included events in the Middle East, dominated by the attack on the US consulate in Libya, and healthcare (primarily related to Obamacare), while social issues accounted for less than 1% of media coverage.
Positive or negative?
Coverage of the election has been more negative than positive according to the Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, whose study suggested that coverage of Obama was slightly more positive than that related to Romney.
However, Obama’s uncharacteristically weak showing in the first presidential debate led to an increase in the number of unfavourable stories written about him.
It seemed that Romney’s comments on Libya and his apparent dismissal of a large portion of the American public led to the early negativity in reporting on his campaign, but his performance in the first debate saw an increase in positive coverage.
Before the debate, Obama received postive press in 22% stories written about him, while Romney received 11% positive coverage.
But the debate led to a strong flip in the tone of reporting, with Obama receiving 13% positive coverage after his poor performance and Romney witnessing an increase to 20% positive reporting.
Overall Obama has received more positive coverage over the entire campaign than Romney has, and the Pew report shows that a similar study of the 2008 campaign saw that Obama received mainly positive coverage (36%) as opposed to John McCain, whose coverage was predominantly negative (57%).
Partisan coverage by mainstream media outlets has long been a feature of US politics, and this remained the case this year. While social media was deemed harsher in general than mainstream media, major networks such as MSNBC and Fox News maintained their support for their preferrered parties and produced reports which kept in line with their bias towards Democrats and Republicans respectively.
Has coverage been biased?
While coverage in certain outlets could certainly be described as biased, complaints have been voiced about the overall tone of media coverage
Early in the campaign, political website Politico came under attack for accusing various outlets of showing a bias against Romney in their reporting.
Republican supporters have echoed these sentiments, suggesting that the media has shown a liberal bias and failed to hold the President accountable for failing to deal decisively with certain issues, including the Libyan consulate attack.
Many have expressed their opinion that Romney has received more unjustified negative coverage than Obama, however the overall tone of coverage in the run up to voting day has focussed on the fact that the election has become too close to call.
One area in which the media does appear to have been biased is in its choice of sources and contributors. According to the Fourth Estate, coverage of the 2012 election has included a significant gender gap, not only on general issues, but on reports directly concerned with issues related to women. According to the study, it seems that US outlets are still choosing to use a significantly larger proportion of men to contribute to reports than women, no matter what the subject up for discussion.
One of the more surprising aspects of the media coverage leading up to the election has been the appearance of one of the most popular birds in the world. Sesame Street’s Big Bird has become the subject of an internet “meme” after Romney’s comments on public broadcasting.
Although the Muppets’ involvement in the campaign is little more than a humourous distraction, it shows how social media has enabled voters, media outlets and citizen journalists to combine political figures with well known fictional characters and popular aspects of everyday life in the US.
Although the impact of Big Bird’s political contribution and that of other internet memes is unlikely to carry much weight, the introduction of Sesame Street characters into political discourse, however lighthearted it may be, is an indication of how media coverage and consumption of the US presidential election race has changed.
The World’s attention
It is not only Americans who are watching the election with a keen eye, as everyone around the world follows what has become an incredibly close battle.
While reports in certain countries have dealt with the specific relationship between their people and the US, the fact that foreign policy has remained a fairly unimportant issue in this election means that general coverage in recent days has focussed on just how close the race between Romney and Obama has become.
Although there have been predictable differences in opinion at times, national and international media seem to have followed general trends in the way they have covered the campaign. However it remains to be seen whether a significant divergence of opinion will become evident in the aftermath of this tense and compelling election campaign.
Source: DCMF, AFP