The Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with their latest report on news coverage of the primary campaign, and the big headline is that, surprise surprise, the tone of coverage varied pretty much exactly with whether candidates were winning or losing. Does that mean reporters had a pro-Romney bias when he was winning primaries, and a pro-Santorum bias when he was winning primaries? Of course not. It shows, instead, just how ridiculous most discussion of ideological bias is.
I spent many years designing and executing this kind of study, and hands down, the most difficult thing to assess in an objective, reliable way is whether coverage is "positive" or "negative" for a particular figure. There are some stories that are obviously damaging ("Candidate Caught Smoking Crack"), which can be "negative" even though they are reported in a completely neutral way. There are some stories that are obviously helpful ("Candidate Wins Primary By Large Margin"), but which are also simply factual. And there are many, many stories in between, where a hundred shades of gray can determine how the events and the interpretation of those events colors the way the story could be read and understood by its audience. It isn't impossible to come up with a coding system that will allow you to classify every story (PEJ uses a combination of software and human coders), but any system that is repeatable will also miss a lot of the subtleties that give reporting its color.
In any case, the PEJ data show once again that the biggest bias of all in campaign coverage is the bias toward discussion of strategy and tactics and away from the substance of policy. Sixty-four percent of the coverage during the primary was about campaign strategy, while 9 percent of the coverage concerned domestic policy, and a whopping 1 percent concerned foreign policy. And as for the coverage of President Obama:
In Obama’s case, his negative coverage was driven by several factors. One was the consistent criticism leveled at him by each of the Republican contenders during primary season. The other involved news coverage of issues—ranging from the tenuous economic recovery to the continuing challenges to his health care legislation—with which he was inextricably linked. An examination of the themes in Obama’s coverage also reveals that the coverage placed him firmly in campaign mode. His coverage that focused on the strategic frame exceeded that relating to policy issues by 3:1.
Will the conservatives who regularly complain about "liberal bias" in the media now say that the media are biased against Obama? Of course not—as far as they're concerned, "bias" can be easily identified as any coverage that is unfavorable to people and ideas they like, so negative coverage of Obama is by definition objective and fair. But the truth is that there were perfectly defensible reasons for Obama getting coverage recently that portrayed him as facing difficulty, and equally defensible reasons he has gotten better coverage at other times. And none of it has to do with ideology.