President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are both being portrayed in an overwhelmingly negative light as they battle each other in America's 2012 presidential election, a new survey of media coverage has revealed.

The result has been one of the most negative electoral contests in recent memory in which Obama is widely painted as having failed to kickstart any meaningful economic recovery, but Romney is described as a rich, elitist "vulture" capitalist out of touch with the struggles of ordinary Americans.

A survey by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism has found that the "master narrative" of Obama is negative in 72% of coverage about his character and record.

But while that may worry Democrats nostalgic for 2008's message of hope and change, there is little consolation for Republicans. The study also found that Romney's master narratives were negative in some 71% of coverage of the former Massachusetts governor.

PEJ director Tom Rosenstiel said the results were a surprise, especially as external events had so far played little role in either campaign, meaning the negativity was more deliberate than any sort of reaction to an outside crisis.

"It is just nastier than normal," said Rosenstiel, pointing out that the 2004 contest – which was also very negative – had been marked by dramatic external events like the war in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

The study looked at some 800 stories from 50 major news outlets and examined 1,772 assessments of the candidates. It found that 36% of all assertions about Obama suggested that the president had not done enough to help the economy.

Meanwhile 14% of assertions about Romney were that he was a vulture capitalist, and 13% were that he was a rich elitist.

"The survey shows that the press has delivered voters a remarkably negative story for both Obama and Romney. The negative theme about Obama's record is winning out right now. At the same time so is the argument that Mitt Romney is a callous businessman and a wealthy elitist," said PEJ associate director Mark Jurkowitz.

Rosenstiel believes the reasons for this are varied. The rise of the internet and each campaign's rapid response teams means narratives of attack and defense are all too dominant in the modern 24 hour news cycle.

At the same time newsrooms of traditional media outlets have shrunk in size, meaning that partisan voices, such as surrogates or campaign officials from each side, find it easier to dominate coverage that has to be produced quickly. "The campaigns understand the weaknesses of the media system," Rosenstiel said.

But it is not just that the campaigns themselves are being negative. Though both sides have been markedly aggressive in their attacks on each other, their positive messages have often failed to be reported by the press.

For example, despite major efforts by the Obama campaign to show him as caring about ordinary Americans, just 3% of press coverage reflected that assertion.

The result is a marked difference from the 2008 campaign, when Obama beat Republican Senator John McCain. In that contest only 31% of coverage about Obama reflected a negative narrative, with McCain coming in at 57%

In recent elections only the coverage of President George W Bush in 2004 was more negative than either Obama or Romney this year. In that contest some 75% of narratives in the press about Bush were negative, though that did not stop him from winning re-election.

© Guardian News and Media 2012