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Harvard Study Confirms The Media Tore Down Clinton, Built Up Trump And Sanders

Yep, Clinton got a bum rap in the press. But she’s on an upward swing

It’s no secret that, from the moment she announced her candidacy back in April 2015, Hillary Clinton has been bludgeoned by negative media coverage. The email server; the Wall Street speaking fees; the attacks from both Trump and Sanders. I’ve debated with people who legitimately fear she will be imprisoned before the election. Some, despite the venomous dismissal of my rolling eyes, have called her a murderer. Others: an old woman, a plutocrat, a crook, abused by her husband, no backbone to speak of. But if you’ve suspected that there’s a reason people are saying these things—perhaps parroting disproportionately negative stories they’ve consumed in the media over the past year-and-a-half—it turns out you’re right.


A new report released this week by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy found Clinton has received far more negative coverage than any other candidate in the race thus far. The study was based on an analysis of news statements from CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

The volume and tone of the candidates’ media coverage. Figure via Shorenstein Center.

Much of the negative coverage has resulted from her perma-frontrunner status. Findings showed the combined effect of those stories was the equivalent of “millions of dollars in attack ads.” Clinton started out 60 percentage points ahead of Bernie Sanders. But 60 percent became 40, which, by the end of 2015, became 25. The media eventually covered the Democratic primary as a David vs. Goliath narrative. Each poll that showed a closing gap between Sanders and Clinton became a negative story for her.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Will the American news media hold the candidates accountable... or will they continue to cover the presidential campaign like it was a UFC cage match?[/quote]

I asked Tim Groeling, Chair of the UCLA Department of Communications Studies, if the extent of Clinton’s negative coverage (which hovered around three bad stories to each good one for most of 2015) was a surprise. “The handicapped horse-race coverage (where Trump did far better than most analysts expected, Sanders did better, and Clinton had a much harder time than predicted) seems to explain most of the patterns observed here,” he told me. “When a candidate does better than expected, reporters tend to write stories explaining why the candidate did better than expected, which tend to focus on positive characteristics. When they do worse than expected, the stories catalog their faults in an attempt to explain that.”

Though 28 percent of Clinton’s coverage was about issues, 84 percent of those stories were negative in tone. To compare, Trump only notched 12 percent on issues, with 43 percent negative in tone. That’s much heavier accountability for the Democratic nominee in a race that received less than half the coverage of the Republican contest. But, for Clinton, it’s easy to see the negative trend reversing as we enter the general election.

“The tide may be shifting as the campaign focuses on Clinton vs. Trump and she takes advantage of the focus and the contrast to strike a more 'presidential' tone,” said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “If the recent Bloomberg poll is substantiated elsewhere, the narrative will likely shift to Hillary as frontrunner, which will produce some more sharp coverage—and Trump will never let up in his attacks—but also more positive coverage that reflects the shifting sands.”

Given that poll, which found Clinton with a commanding 12-point lead in the general election, the frontrunner scrutiny won’t let up. But increasingly negative coverage of Trump, whose private jet might finally be plummeting back to earth, will likely become a big positive for Clinton.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The handicapped horse-race coverage seems to explain most of the patterns observed here.[/quote]

Her greatest asset as a candidate will be her opponent. Trump’s recent slate of controversies—from lambasting a federal judge’s Mexican heritage to his tonedeaf reaction to the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando—has kept his name on front pages, but the stories are much harsher in tone than when he was battling Ted Cruz for the nomination. Media coverage is becoming more concerted in its effort to debunk Trump’s lies and question his more outrageous statements.

Bill Jasso, professor of practice at the Newhouse School of Public Relations at Syracuse University, believes the media will start holding candidates to higher standards. “The most significant societal question for me is: Will the American news media—both traditional and new digital—hold the candidates accountable for the veracity of their statements and positions, or will they continue to cover the presidential campaign like it was a UFC cage match? I have faith that most journalists realize ‘the fun’s over’ and are ready to embark on the hard work of reporting on substantive issues and real-world solutions.”

A focus on real solutions should benefit Clinton, as should the competition in unfavorability ratings. Trump is currently receiving yet another round of negative coverage from a new ABC/Washington Post poll which shows he is disliked by 94 percent of African-Americans, 89 percent of Hispanics, 77 percent of women, and a whopping 70 percent of all adults. For at least the time being, nobody is talking about Hillary Clinton, which, for her, is positive coverage.

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