The Law of the Frontrunner

CNN's Anderson Cooper, one of many reporters giving the presidential frontrunners scrutiny last week.Campaign managers never believe their guy is getting fair coverage in the news media. And for news consumers, it’s hard to cut through all the noise of campaign coverage to judge who is ahead in garnering positive stories.

That is because election news coverage always seems like a horse race. Who’s ahead? Who’s behind? Campaign media managers need to take note; the perceived frontrunner usually gets more scrutiny and may feel a little uncomfortable under the lights.

Two weeks ago the tone of the Florida presidential primary news coverage was fairly similar, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).

“During the week from January 16 through January 22 (the day after the South Carolina primary), the two leading candidates for the Republican nomination also received a similar volume of coverage-and far more than that of any other GOP contenders,” the report said.

That week, Romney’s coverage was judged 35 percent negative and 33 per cent positive. Reporting on Gingrich was viewed as 28 percent negative and 28 percent positive.

This near-parity represents a large increase from the week before (January 9-15) in the amount of attention the media was paying to Gingrich.

But last week Romney fell victim to the “law of the frontrunner.” He got closer attention.

“During the week from January 23 through January 29 (two days before the Florida primary), a quarter of the coverage of Romney (25 percent) was positive, while more than a third (38 percent) was negative, a 13 point differential. Meanwhile, another 37 percent was neutral or simply descriptive,” the report said.

PEJ is providing election news junkies with a great tool. Watch it weekly to see if perception matches reality.

The PEJ analysis combines traditional research methods involving human coding with the power of algorithmic analysis using software developed by the company Crimson Hexagon. It includes an analysis of more than 11,000 news websites around the United States and the full public feed of tweets on Twitter. In PEJ's hybrid method, human coders teach the computer to analyze the tone of coverage using PEJ's methods and rules. Researchers then study the examples cited by the algorithmic results to add a qualitative understanding of the narrative.