A bunch of analysts examined media coverage of the presidential race for four summer weeks amid the Democratic and Republican conventions. They found that the tone of reporting on Donald Trump was overwhelmingly negative, perhaps a rebuttal to all those who are saying that Trump gets graded on a curve:
They also found that the tone of reporting on Hillary Clinton was marginally negative:
These findings come from the third in a series of reports from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Why the disparity between the two candidates? Professor Thomas Patterson, who wrote the report, indicates that one controversy looms large in the data: Trump’s sliming of the wife of Khizr Khan, the Pakistani American who gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention. His son, Humayun Khan, was an Army captain killed in Iraq in 2004. The speech by Khizr Khan generated a great deal of press coverage, and Trump seized on one particular aspect of the proceedings in an interview with ABC News. “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say,” said Trump. “She probably—maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”
Here’s how the Shorenstein Center abridged the reaction:
The ensuing firestorm brought Trump a slew of coverage during the final week of the convention period. The reporting was nearly 100 percent negative, and cut across nearly every area of Trump’s coverage: his stand on immigration, his personal character, his knowledge of the law, his poll standing. The Khan exchange was that week’s most heavily covered development, shifting the balance of news attention strongly in his direction. He got 34 percent of that week’s campaign coverage—the highest weekly total of any presidential candidate at any point to date in the 2016 campaign. And the overall tone of his coverage was 91 percent negative—the most negative for any candidate in any single campaign week to date.
The Khan controversy, of course, was approximately 79 Trump-outrage cycles ago.
Tone is one thing; composition, another: Behold this Shorenstein chart on the components of Clinton coverage:
Now, anyone who has spent any time on the MSNBC-CNN-Fox News beat will hardly find that breakdown shocking. Though Clinton has released mountains of policy prescriptions, they’re way too boring for the tastes of many editors, producers and reporters. That’s not news, either. Yet the Erik Wemple Blog did find one finding worth repeating, in blockquote form:
Reporters quoted Trump more often about Clinton’s policies than they quoted her.
Right! Were you a political reporter, which would you rather put in your story? This quote from Trump about Clinton:
“The legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction, chaos and weakness,” Trump said. “She’s weak. She’s a weak person. I know her. She’s a weak person.”
Or this bit from Clinton’s website on how to disrupt global terrorist networks:
Working with tech companies to fight jihadist propaganda online, intercept ISIS communications, and track and analyze social media posts to stop attacks—while protecting security and privacy.
It’s here that Clinton faces a structural problem with media coverage. As the Pew Research Center has calculated, horse-race themes — strategy, polls, optics and the like — have drubbed policy coverage in recent elections: 53 percent to 20 percent in 2008; and 38 percent to 22 percent in 2012. Slapping up the most recent poll and bringing in some pundits to do analysis is a cinch, and audiences do like to see who’s up and who’s down. Just so happens that this shallow tendency among news organizations handicaps Clinton, who, by any objective analysis, has far more to say about policy than Trump. Whereas Trump has about 9,000 words of policy prescriptions on his website, Clinton has 112,735, as explained by CNN’s Brian Stelter.
So anyone setting out to compare the candidates’ policies on Topic X or Topic Y is in for a frustrating exercise. Try this article by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Carolyn Lochhead on the candidate’s policies regarding Western water-supply issues. To deal with a prolonged drought in the Colorado River Basin, Clinton, according to Lochhead, is calling for a “big push on water conservation and reuse, along with habitat restoration and similar measures. She adds a special focus on water technology, calling for a new national Water Innovation Laboratory, modeled on the national energy labs such as Lawrence Livermore. The lab’s mission would emphasize basic water research, an area that has been neglected for decades.”
As for Trump? “There is no drought,” he said at a rally in May. And in what may well be described as Trump’s universopolicy, he also promised: “We’re going to get it done quick; don’t even think about it.” Hunting for details on how that might get accomplished, Lochhead noted, “Since then, the Trump campaign has issued no policy positions on water or on the environment generally. The campaign has no environmental plan on its website, the standard place candidates inform voters of their positions.”
Perhaps the media will have an excuse this cycle. How can you do policy coverage when one of the candidates has so few policies?