Harvard Study Finds Biased, Non-Substantive Media Coverage of Election 2016

A Harvard multi-series research project, based on a detailed content analysis of the presidential election coverage, has linked media coverage with the rise of Donald Trump as well as Hillary Clinton’s plunge in likability. The study took into account five television networks – ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, and NBC News – and five leading newspapers – the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and USA Today.

Courtesy: Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy / Media Tenor

Courtesy: Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy / Media Tenor

The data, from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, shows that these media outlets favorably – or at least neutrally – covered presidential nominee Donald Trump before and during the Republican primary season. The research also suggests a strong correlation between the amount of coverage and support Donald Trump received.

Washington Post Reporter Chris Cillizza was once largely skeptical of the claim that the media went “too easy” on Trump, but upon looking into the Shorenstein Center’s study, he grants some conditional credence to this view. Cillizza comments that while the “media played a larger role in the rise of Trump than [he] previously believed,” the media, collectively, did not “let Trump off easy.”

Los Angeles Times writer David Lauter recounts the study with a quotation from Thomas E. Patterson, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Trump “exploited [the media’s] lust for riveting stories. The politics of outrage was his edge, and the press became his dependable, if unwitting, ally.”

PBS Frontline senior digital reporter Sarah Childress also grants credence to the notion of the “journalistic bias” working in favor of Donald Trump, citing precedent. “This isn’t the first time the press has fallen for a candidate,” Childress notes. “Barack Obama received “outsized coverage” when he first ran in 2008, as did Sen. John McCain in 2000, when he invited reporters aboard his campaign bus, the “Straight Talk Express.” Trump, the report said, is now on that list.” With this prognosis of the “journalistic bias,” Childress’ comments seem to suggest that if excessive media coverage of Donald Trump continues, based on precedent, he may win the general election.

Some outlets have pinned lop-sided media coverage among the candidates to bias against Hillary Clinton. An article from the Daily Kos presents the findings of the study as clearly indicative of a media bias against the Democratic nominee, and satirically refers to the media as “the vacuous political press corps” and openly condemns the media’s continued pro-Trump bias. Bob Cesca, podcast host and contributor to Salon, attributes the difference in coverage between Clinton and Trump as the media judging the two with different criteria. “Hillary Clinton’s negatives appear eons more grievous than Donald Trump’s missteps, even though they’re not — and this disparity unfairly elevates Trump and his poll numbers.”

Courtesy: Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Media Tenor

Courtesy: Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy / Media Tenor

Although the coverage that Trump received throughout the primary contest was overwhelmingly positive, between Super Tuesday and the middle of the primaries, media coverage began to become more against Trump.

Washington Examiner chief political correspondent Byron York attributes the media’s shift of Trump’s media coverage from positive to negative as a result of more focus on policy issues later on in the primary. “Issues coverage of Trump was negative from the beginning,” York notes, “it’s just that there wasn’t much of it in the early, heavily horserace period. But when the horserace died down, there was more issues coverage, and it was just as negative as always. Presto — the overall coverage became more negative.”

The study itself also noted the a lack of policy substance among media outlets in covering both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the primary and general election season.

Courtesy: Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy / Media Tenor

Courtesy: Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy / Media Tenor

Brian Stelter, CNN senior media correspondent and host of “Reliable Sources,” addresses the media’s apparent lack of policy coverage and blames the actual candidates, particularly Trump. “Why is he talking about us and not about policy? Why is he talking about us and not Hillary Clinton?” Stelter says, in response to Trump’s claims of a non-substantive, biased media. Stelter raises the point that the media’s coverage of Trump may be largely non-substantive in nature under the premise that Trump himself conducts his campaign as more of a scandal than a substantive discussion.

John Iadarola, co-host of “The Young Turks,” comments on the disparity of media reporting depicted in the Harvard research. “God only knows what 70 percent of the coverage there is supposed to be.” Iadorola exclaims, “Look, policy and issues are supposed to be what we’re debating [this presidential election] on, and it’s only eight percent of the coverage.”

Kyle Kulinski, host of podcast “Secular Talk,” explains that the low coverage of policy substance is reflective of the media’s infatuation with the horse race, “They view the election, and they discuss the election solely from the horse race aspect of it” Kulinski assesses, “As you cover the horse race angle, you should pepper your coverage with endless policy discussion.”

Harvard’s Shorenstein Center also attributes this lacking coverage of policy substance to coverage of the horse race and largely unrelated scandal. “No aspect of the campaign meets journalists’ need for novelty more predictably than does the horse race” Patterson writes. “Each new poll or disruption gives journalists the opportunity to reassess the candidates’ tactics and positions in the race. Policy issues, on the other hand, lack novelty.”

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