Covering the Conventions: Bias in Pre and Post-speech Media Commentary during the 2012 Presidential Nominating Conventions

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Presented March 1, 2013 at the AEJMC Southeast Colloquium, Tampa, Fla. Electronic News Division, Top Paper Award.

To request the accompanying PowerPoint, email Dylan.

To read the abstract and request the full paper, go to the Academia page on


Party nominating conventions used to be messy and meaningful. Today, they’re more pomp and circumstance. It’s no wonder the broadcast television networks pay far less attention to them now than in decades past. For cable news, on the other hand, the conventions provide fuel – or at least a moving backdrop – to the 24-hour news cycle. And in the pauses between speakers, the talking heads weigh-in with their analysis.

There is a healthy amount of research suggesting that the party nominating conventions can influence voters, as well as a stack of studies that indicate media analysis of political events can influence voters. However, the specific cross-section between conventions and commentary has not been evaluated.

Does instant media commentary affect perceptions of convention speeches? This study lays the foundation for that investigation by looking at how favorably (or unfavorably) different news networks covered the 2012 Republican and Democratic national conventions.

We looked at a large sample of live convention coverage – all six nights of primetime (10 p.m. E.T.) on the three major broadcast (ABC, CBS, NBC) and cable (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC) networks. Here’s what we learned:

  • Convention coverage was generally favorable to the host party.
  • Bias was indicated by an exaggeration of this positive commentary, and near absence of negative commentary (for instance, coverage of the DNC on MSNBC was 3% negative; the RNC on Fox News was only 2% negative). In other words, unbalanced coverage was not the result of tearing one side down, but by disproportionately praising the other.
  • The largest differences in valence were observed on Fox News & MSNBC, though some statistical tests revealed evidence of bias in traditional network broadcasts.

We look forward to enriching this study with further data from the content analysis, including potential explanatory mechanisms. Next, we desire to test the effects of such instant media commentary on the audience. We extend our thanks to the School of Mass Communications at the University of South Florida for hosting the event, and the paper judges for honoring us with the Top Paper Award in the Electronic News Division.


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