Yes, Donald Trump has gotten more news coverage (at least the network TV kind) than Hillary Clinton. Lots and lots of it. Quite probably a record amount, in fact.
But, no, the difference in the amount of coverage between Trump and Clinton isn’t all that unusual compared with previous presidential campaigns. And the difference might not mean much at all to voters, according to new research.
The key stat: Trump’s campaign attracted 822 minutes of screen time on the nightly news broadcasts of ABC, CBS and NBC between Jan. 1 and Labor Day, according to the Tyndall Report, which has tracked broadcast news since 1987. It’s unlikely that another presidential candidate in history has ever gotten more, says Andrew Tyndall, the newsletter’s proprietor.
Clinton’s campaign commanded just 386 minutes, which includes 89 minutes spent on the investigation of her emails as secretary of state.
That’s a big coverage “gap.” Roughly speaking, Trump has gotten more than twice as much network attention as Clinton.
Why? “Simply put, the Trump phenomenon is more newsworthy,” Tyndall says. “Compared with her, he is more accessible, more outlandish, more entertaining, more flamboyant, more unpredictable and, by far, a more radical departure from political norms . . . By contrast to his, her campaign has been so buttoned-down, and covered as such.” (It hasn’t helped Clinton that until recently she has been allergic to giving news conferences.)
But before Democrats start complaining that their candidate is being overshadowed, consider a TV truism: “Newcomer” candidates like Trump generally tend to attract more airtime than incumbents or candidates such as Clinton, who has been in the national spotlight for 25 years.
Republican Mitt Romney, for example, got three times more network coverage during the January-to-Labor Day period in 2012 than his opponent, President Obama (308 minutes vs. 77 minutes). And Obama was way ahead of Sen. John McCain in 2008 (557 vs. 315). It was the same, to a lesser extent, with John F. Kerry (275) vs. President George W. Bush (220) in 2004; and with Bush (190) vs. Vice President Al Gore (140) during the 2000 campaign.
While the networks’ nightly newscasts have declined substantially since the days of Walter Cronkite, they remain surprisingly durable sources of information. Collectively, they were watched by nearly 24 million people each night last year, making them the most popular daily source of news in America by far.
Networks account for just one small piece of all campaign coverage, of course. But Tyndall’s data “looks very much like the media data I have collected in terms of the large differential” between the two candidates, said Diana C. Mutz, a political-science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. If anything, she said, the gap may be even wider if one looked at all kinds of TV coverage, including cable news and entertainment programs.
But how much this gap matters — or whether it even matters at all — is one of those things political scientists like to argue about.
“Free media matters, especially positive coverage,” says Markus Prior, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University. “So this imbalance could be consequential if Trump also gets a lot more positive coverage than Hillary.”
That’s hard to know without deeper content analysis. Tyndall doesn’t categorize the networks’ coverage as “positive” or “negative.”
But Mutz isn’t so sure it makes a lot of difference.
“What we know from past research is that you need a certain amount of coverage to be deemed legitimate as a candidate, to attract donors, et cetera,” she said. Because of the massive media focus on the presidential contenders, both leading candidates go “way over” this baseline.
“Beyond that,” she added, “I don’t think there’s any good research documenting that amount of coverage matters one way or the other.”
Media attention has a much greater effect, Mutz says, in lower-level races, where the candidates aren’t nearly as familiar and voters have far less information (and thus, far fewer strong opinions) about them.
She compares it to the difference between buying toilet paper and buying a car. A car, like a presidential vote, is a “high- involvement” purchase, so a buyer spends time gathering and processing information, which is abundant and readily available. But in buying toilet paper, as in voting for down-ballot candidates, people spend less effort and have less information.
Since media coverage of these secondary races is so limited, says Mutz, a TV news report or word-of-mouth has outsize influence. To extend the metaphor to its breaking point, it’s “like buying the TP brand your mother bought.”