The title of Thomas Patterson’s new study suggests ambition: “News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Primaries: Horse Race Reporting Has Consequences.”
It’s a delightful read steeped in history and full of excellent observations about the interplay of U.S. presidential primaries and the media entrusted with abridging them for the public. Patterson writes, “The press’s version of a presidential campaign is a refracted one, shaped as much by news values as by political factors. It’s a version that can help, or hurt, a presidential hopeful’s chances of winning the party’s nomination.” Patterson is Bradlee professor of government and the press at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Among the hair-raising findings: “Substantive concerns” — a category consisting of the candidates’ policy positions, leadership abilities and the like — accounted for an underwhelming 11 percent of the primary coverage, a period spanning Jan. 1 through June 7, 2016. Other categories of coverage — horse-race stuff and “campaign process” (nominating rules, upcoming schedule and so on) — accounted for 56 percent and 33 percent, respectively, of the content. And if you think the mainstream media has been too tough on Trump, have a look at the bars on this chart:
So the “media” was about half-positive toward Trump across the Republican primaries and about half-negative. Says who, though? As the study’s methodology makes clear, it relies on full-time, trained staff members at analytical firm Media Tenor, which bills itself as “the first media research institute to focus on continuous 100 percent media analysis.” These folks sift through broadcasts and articles to determine whether they’re positive, negative or neutral regarding the various candidates. It’s tedious work.
Which is why it cannot possibly digest anything close to the full roar of media content out there. Limiting choices must be made. Patterson’s study, done under the banner of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, claims to evaluate media coverage of the primaries based on the following outlets: CBS, Fox News, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
Media analysts and Twitter users may quibble with those choices, but if you have to limit your study to eight or so outlets, it seems like a reasonable assortment. What’s more limiting, however, is the volume of content from each of these organizations that the study examined. In the case of NBC News and CBS News, for example, the study looked only at the evening newscasts — not at the morning shows or at the 24/7 content of NBC News sibling MSNBC. And for Fox News, it looked only at the evening newscast anchored by Bret Baier, “Special Report,” according to information supplied by Patterson.
Consider the swaths of Fox News programming that get missed in the process: three hours of morning quasi-news on “Fox & Friends,” which is perhaps the Trump-friendliest program in all of television news; “Hannity,” which competes with “Fox & Friends” for Trump-friendliest program; “The O’Reilly Factor,” whose host has extended his run as cable-news ratings king with Trump-loving coverage; and “On the Record” with Greta Van Susteren, which actually hosted a “Meet the Trumps” weeks ago. (The study’s look at newspapers was far less selective, covering all sections except sports, obituaries and letters to the editor.)
To put things in a starker light: The study of a campaign dominated by cable-news coverage looked at one daily hour of cable-news programming. Patterson said that thanks to some grants, subsequent studies in this series will encompass CNN, MSNBC and other outlets.
The alternative to this approach? Computers, of course. Analytics firm mediaQuant has built a machine that gobbles mountains of content, spitting out verdicts on who’s getting favorable and unfavorable coverage. The whole thing is automated, with judgments on positive vs. negative coverage “based upon the prominence (volume + relative importance) of industry-standard ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ phrases and their proximity to the topic mention.” It was this machine that made headlines this year in announcing that Donald Trump had secured $2 billion in earned — or “free,” in the words of some folks — media attention.
As we wrote earlier, mediaQuant for the month of April pegged Trump’s favorable coverage in the media at 85 percent, a level that a mediaQuant rep said was pretty consistent with his rate throughout his candidacy. Compare that figure with Patterson’s conclusions that about two-thirds of Trump’s coverage in 2015 was positive and about one-half was positive between January and early June.
Well, surely all the analysts — whether they’re reading the coverage or running computer programs on it — can agree that there’s way too much of it — and not just when it comes to Donald Trump. Capably characterizing it all will be a stretch for as long as the Internet sticks around.