Dwindling Democracy: The media’s hand in the 2016 election is proven to be heavy

Multiple studies published this year found that Trump dominated media coverage by substantial margins.

Over the past month, 7 journalists from the Ithaca College community have investigated the 2016 election. What follows is the third in the “Dwindling Democracy” series of three stories about voter suppression; the electoral system and the media’s role in electing Donald Trump. We recommend reading them in order, but each story can be read independent of all other parts. Part 1: Voter suppression undermines a fair election Part 2: The way the U.S. elects its president is unfair and outdated

By Max Denning and Dominick Recckio

At 3:51 a.m. on Oct. 15, just days before the final presidential debate, then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump began a “tweet-storm” critiquing the media and making claims of a rigged election with this:

Although Trump has tweeted at least 70 times so far in 2016 about the media, mainly on how it is “biased” and “rigged against” him, at least five different studies on election coverage have proven the exact opposite. These studies explain how Trump’s Electoral College win was greatly influenced by the unprecedented amounts of media attention his campaign received, and that the media’s increased focus on ratings and clicks was a contributing factor as well.

Multiple studies published this year found that Trump dominated media coverage by substantial margins. A study done by Thomas Patterson and his team at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that from Jan. 1 2015 to Dec. 31 2015, Trump received the equivalent of $55 million of positive or neutral coverage in eight major mainstream organizations, $36 million more than Jeb Bush, who received the second most of this type of coverage. While another report by Patterson found that Trump’s general election coverage was immensely negative, his coverage over the entirety of the campaign was still more positive than Clinton’s.

In addition, a study by progressive media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting found in an analysis of all front-page election stories from the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today of the 128 presidential stories that primarily focused on one candidate, Trump was featured in 87 and Clinton only 41. From August and September 2016, “policy issues facing the electorate were only 12 percent of front-page election coverage,” which Janine Jackson, program director of FAIR, said covered up the “disturbing aspects” of Trump’s policies.

Of the 128 presidential stories on the front page that primarily focused on one candidate in August and September, Trump was featured in 87 and Clinton only 41. Infographic by Peter Champelli

Patterson, Jackson, and other academics and media critics have proven that Trump’s campaign exploited the American mainstream media’s increasingly polarizing and corporate-dominated “horse-race” election coverage for positive publicity and vast amounts of free media, undoubtedly contributing to his Electoral College victory.

Trump’s maniacal domination of the media

At 6:35 p.m. on election night, less than an hour before polls closed in Ohio, Trump called the Fox Cleveland local nightly news. He spoke live on air for over a minute, exciting and surprising the small Fox station. Trump bragged about his ability to “create a lot of jobs” while simultaneously flattering the small station to reinforce his narrative that he is a man of the people. Trump regularly made himself available to small and local outlets that wouldn’t normally receive a call from a Presidential candidate.

In a study done by Chris Wells and a team of professors at the University of Wisconsin titled, “How Trump Drove Coverage to the Nomination: Hybrid Media Campaigning”, they wrote that Trump’s “primary campaign fused the celebrity culture imperatives of ‘mediation, visibility, and attention.” Research published in the peer-reviewed journal Political Communication , explains that “in the primary period, Trump’s delegate count does not explain his coverage, suggesting his attention was not a function of his electoral success.”

The UW team also studied the correlation between Trump’s most fertile source of media attention: his Twitter, along with the media coverage that followed. Their regression analysis of the relationship between the timing of Trump’s tweets and proliferation of news stories from when Trump announced his candidacy June 15, 2015, to when John Kasich, his final primary opponent, dropped out of the race on May 4, 2016, found that “retweets of Trump’s posts are a significant positive predictor of news stories and blog posts in six of eight tests.” Also that, “Trump’s tweet volume is a negative predictor of concurrent news coverage in two of four tests, which may imply that he unleashes ‘tweetstorms’ when his coverage is low.”

In an interview, Wells said that while he can’t get inside of Trump’s head to be able to say what exactly he was thinking when he launched “tweet-storms,” and that more analysis needs to be done of the tweets, Trump’s tweets clearly had an impact on the print media.

“He’s a mix of something we would call strategy but also some intuition,” Wells said. “Intuition that he’s developed over decades of being in the public eye and knowing how to attract media attention.”

Wells continued, “Assuming that he really did tweet more when he noticed that his coverage was down, that could have been a calculation that ‘Hey, I need to get back in the press.” Wells is still skeptical of how strategic Trump may have been.

When Trump tweeted, the most read mainstream print media outlets responded with heightened amounts of coverage.

As Wells explains, “Trump was doing great public relations during his campaign, having those huge rallies, with again, great visuals saying provocative things, and I would say the media is complicit in that certainly.”

Wells also mentioned the research done by David Karpf, an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, who published an article titled “The Clickbait Candidate” in June 2016. Karpf wrote that “Trump can lay claim to a new title: the first electoral beneficiary of the era of web analytics.”

In Karpf’s article, he explains how the fairly new ability of online media to measure which stories are popular impacted the 2016 presidential election coverage.

“In this instance, the signal is that Trump brings in way more traffic than Bush, Cruz, Walker, Clinton, Sanders or Carson. And this signal then helps guide their news routines — people seem to want more Trump, so let’s give it to them.”

And did they give it to them.

Trump dominated the election coverage of every major mainstream news publication, television station and blog in an unprecedented fashion.

Trumping Primary Coverage

Primary night, podium, punditry, the networks are carrying all other speeches, but no Bernie.

In 2015, of the 1,031 minutes of airtime from broadcasts’ networks nightly newscasts devoted to all campaigns, Trump received 327 minutes, or 32 percent. Clinton received 121 minutes, or 12 percent, and Sanders received 20 minutes or 1.9 percent.

In 2007, the candidate who received the most airtime, Clinton, who was the prohibitive favorite until late October 2007, received 121 minutes of airtime.

Trump received more than 2.5 times the coverage of Clinton and 16 times the coverage of Sanders. And almost 3 times the coverage that Clinton did during the 2008 primary season.

Even though Trump didn’t declare his candidacy until June, didn’t lead in the polls until late July, and first peaked in late December 2015 with 36.5 percent.

Sanders announced his candidacy in April, never lead in the polls, but polled at more than 20 percent by early August, and peaked in mid-November at 33.5 percent.

Yet, Trump received 1635 percent more coverage than Sanders.

While Sanders was hindered in his efforts to win the Democratic Nomination, his meteoric rise, populist message, outsider storyline and audacious crowds were all at least comparable to Trump’s. Yet, the media “blacked him out.”

Patterson’s study also found a similar trend among every mainstream news outlet that they studied during the invisible primary period in 2015. Not only was Trump receiving more coverage than any other candidate in the race, and double the news coverage of any other Republican in the field, but the coverage was overwhelmingly positive.

Patterson found that Trump’s coverage was overwhelmingly favorable.

Of all the outlets he analyzed, Trump’s coverage was roughly two-to-one favorable.
Graphic by Judy Blomquist/Harvard Staff http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/06/the-making-of-the-campaign-2016/

For Clinton, in the first half of 2015, there were three negative reports about her for every one positive story. In the second half, the ratio was 3:2 negative to positive, according to Patterson’s study.

Patterson’s study found that “Sanders’ coverage in 2015 was the most favorable of any of the top candidates, Republican or Democratic,” but Clinton also received three times more coverage than Sanders in the first half of 2015, according to the Harvard study.

Stories about Sanders may have been more positive than any other candidate, but they were also the least substantive. In a November interview with the independent media organization Democracy Now!, Bernie Sanders responded to a question about his coverage saying that Trump was insulting his opponents, which was click-bait material. “That is great 12-second sounds bite. But to talk about why the middle class is in the decline or why we have massive levels of income and wealth inequity can’t be done in 12 seconds.” Sanders said. Unfortunately, the media is not really interested in those sound bites.

Percentage of coverage devoted to issues during the presidential primaries. Graph courtesy of Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy

Patterson and his team at Harvard published another study in July 2016, titled “News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Primaries: Horse Race Reporting Has Consequences,” which found that each of the 4 leading candidates had less than 30 percent of their coverage devoted to the issues.

Clinton led the candidates with 28 percent of her coverage devoted to the issues. However, a whopping 84 percent of Clinton’s issue coverage was negative.

Trump on the other hand, who had already called for a ban of Muslim travel to the U.S., called for a wall to be built on the Mexican border and falsely claimed that Mexican immigrants were rapists, only had 12 percent of his coverage devoted to the issues — 43 percent of which was negative.

Only 7 percent of Sanders’ coverage was devoted to the issues — 17 percent of which was negative in tone.

The “biased,” “liberal” mainstream media covered Trump’s radical conservative, unconstitutional, and “post-fact” policy claims 41 percent more positively than Clinton’s. They legitimized his candidacy and plans for the country by acting not as journalists, but merely as signal boosters for his message.

Horse Race Coverage

It’s Aug. 17, less than three months from election day. It’s a fairly busy news day: Trump was set to receive his first Top-Secret intelligence briefing; 11 people were dead in Louisiana amid historic flooding; residents of Yemen said a U.S-backed airstrike killed nine civilians; Trump called for more police in “our poorest communities” in Wisconsin after protests.

The lead story on the front page of The Washington Post: “Trump shakes up campaign, demotes top adviser:”

A story not about the issues, or Trump’s racist policies, but one solely based on the strategy of his campaign. While it was notable that Stephen Bannon, who has been praised by white nationalist for his support of anti-semitic and racist views, was becoming chief executive of Trump’s campaign, the Post article describes Bannon as “anti-establishment” and the term racist only appears in the article in a quote from Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook.

Patterson’s July 2016 study found that only 11 percent of election coverage of the primary season was focused on “substantive concerns,” while 56 percent of coverage was focused on “competitive game.”

Patterson’s study concludes with, “The problems associated with press coverage of the 2016 nominating campaign are rooted in the mismatch of journalism values and the structure of the nominating process.

“There is little question that the nature of the 2016 campaign — Trump’s presence, particularly — brought the mismatch into sharp relief. But the broad tendencies in press coverage of the 2016 coverage are ones that exhibit themselves every four years.”

He says that although Trump’s presence brought the media’s tendencies to cover elections as horse races to the spotlight, the media has done this during every presidential election.

Graph courtesy of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy

Jackson, who began working at FAIR as its research director in 1992, said that horse race coverage benefitted Trump.

“The coverage that is superficial and that is just on the strategy of campaigns, that did favor, I think, Donald Trump,” she said. “Because It kept some of the more disturbing aspects of his policies and his ideas kind of on the backburner.”

“Instead we heard, ‘is he going to reveal his taxes?’ ‘well how much is he spending on his campaign?’ Which again, it’s not that it’s not newsworthy, but it’s not the only news. So that kind of coverage did kind of cover up, the most awful aspects of Trump’s ideas.”


The mainstream media gave Donald Trump everything he ever wanted: unprecedented amounts of coverage that was non-adversarial, overwhelmingly positive during the initial stages and often failed to challenge his policy beliefs.

The mainstream media wasn’t just complicit in the election of Donald Trump, it seems that they wanted it to happen; news executives loved this.

Leslie “Les” Roy Moonves, chairman of the board and the president and chief executive officer of CBS, said CBS was reaping the benefits of Trump at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference.

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say,” Moonves said. “So what can I say? The money’s rolling in, this is fun.”

The CBS Evening News gave Sanders 6 minutes of coverage in 2015.

Clinton received 24 minutes.

Trump got 84.


The election of Trump has created a panic among many of the country’s Democratic leaders. Since election day there have been calls for the electoral college to deny Trump; individuals placing blame on WikiLeaks or the FBI; some have even brought up voter suppression.

No matter what happens over the next month, and the next four years, one fact will remain crystal clear: The U.S.’s voting processes, election systems and media structures need mass overhaul.

Without extensive reform of these systems, elected officials will be able who have little to no regard for the populous’ marginalized will continue to lead the country.

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