Who Makes the News? Good Question!
With the release of the third Shorenstein Center report on media coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, Carnegie Corporation and Knight Foundation hosted a panel discussion on September 28 at the Corporation’s New York headquarters, just 40 days before the election. The Carnegie-Knight Forum—“Who Makes the News? Journalism and the State of Our Democracy”—examined the role of the media and asked how well it is serving the public.
In his opening remarks, Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian remembered that as a young immigrant he held an idealistic image of journalists upholding democracy by “defying power, defying wealth, defying status” because they were born to “maintain the sanctity of our Constitution.” But the study found that, in this election year, coverage and analysis of policies and issues—which might inform and educate the electorate, thereby strengthening our democracy—has taken a back seat to reporting on the candidates’ polls, projections, and scandals.
Researchers at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy examined news reports produced by five network newscasts and six daily news publications—ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Washington Times—up through the week following the Democratic convention. On the whole, there was more coverage of Donald Trump than of Hillary Clinton (or of any of the other candidates), and on average Trump’s coverage was more positive than negative. Clinton’s coverage, on the other hand, was exceptionally negative throughout the period, focusing on the horse race nature of the campaign and the controversy surrounding Clinton’s use of a private email server. Overall, what was missing from the coverage? Context and background that could help potential voters make some sense of the issues.
Tom Patterson, the study’s author, and a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, pointed out that the drawn-out primary process pits the press—with its need to say something new every day—against the campaign process, which takes well over a year. “This year, that mismatch may have reached a breaking point,” he said. A large factor is Donald Trump, who—from the day he announced his candidacy—increasingly dominated media coverage. “He is just a very good story,” explained Patterson.
The panelists disagreed about the values of journalism, about what was in fact newsworthy (or not), and about how well the media had played the constitutional watchdog role that Gregorian had praised in his opening remarks. Molly Ball, a political reporter for the Atlantic, had previously taken issue with Patterson’s research in “Stop Blaming the Media for Trump.” During the discussion she continued to object to the idea that the media distorted the process. Trump received the lion’s share of coverage because he was “the most interesting thing that was happening,” said Ball. “The bottom line for me,” she concluded, was that “the people to blame for Donald Trump are the voters.”
Arianna Huffington, founder and former editor of The Huffington Post, strongly disagreed. Huffington argued that the media bears a tremendous responsibility for Trump’s success. “Before Donald Trump was winning, before he had endorsements, before he had money,” she said, “he was getting an unprecedented amount of attention that was justified by nothing political, except for the fact that he was good for ratings.” The media has changed its tone more recently and now takes—has to take—Trump’s candidacy seriously. “It's late, it's really late,” Advertising Age quoted Huffington in its coverage of the event. "The tumor is all over the body politic." It is at if one decided to undergo chemotherapy after a cancerous tumor has already spread. "The lies have taken root," said Huffington.
Huffington told the panel that her website avoids normalizing Trump with a false sense of balance. “Our job is to be very clear where the truth lies,” she said, “It doesn't always lie in the middle.” The Huffington Post covered Trump in the entertainment section at first, moving him to news after he proposed banning 1.6 billion Muslims from the country. That is when they decided he is “a clear and present danger to the country and the world.” Each piece about Trump on The Huffington Post website has an editor’s note attached, warning that Trump is a serial liar, a racist, a misogynist, a birther, and a xenophobe.
Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, questioned the study’s methodology. “I kind of want a recount,” he said. Baron, who was the only panelist whose publication was scrutinized in the study, thought it simplistic to count stories simply as positive or negative. “Over 50% of the stories that are counted as positive coverage are horse race stories, poll stories,” he said, “which is a factual account of what happened.” He thought that the study discounted the notion that “the candidate matters, the message matters, it’s not just that the media coverage matters”—particularly in such a crowded Republican field. Stephen Henderson, editor of the Detroit Free Press, agreed that blaming the media for covering a candidate who is so odd and so strange is probably a “little misplaced.”
The Washington Post also produced a number of serious Trump investigations said Baron. “I don’t think that the media is all the same, and I don’t think the stories are all the same, and I don’t think they should be counted the same based on their volume, as the study does.” He also does not hold news organizations responsible for examining the candidates’ policies and the issues. Candidates “all have their websites,” he said. “You would think those would be the most trafficked things on the internet, but they’re not, because people don’t go to them.” The Altantic’s Ball agreed. “That might not be what this election is about,” she said. “It seems to be much more an election about attitudes and emotions and identities and less about the issues.” She didn’t think it was the media’s role to steer the coverage differently. “The candidates could make it more about policy, but for the most part, they haven’t.”
Patterson thought the panelists missed the main point of his study. “We are not saying that the media nominated Donald Trump,” but the data does suggest “it put a little wind at his back.” Patterson also thought that it is wrong to say that the volume of the reporting on Trump is inconsequential. “Tell that to a candidate in a crowded field of 18 contenders. Donald Trump was a master at getting the media’s attention, and through that, getting the public’s attention.” Even when the coverage was negative, if it kept Trump at center stage, it confirmed that he was somehow on the right track. Patterson closed by saying that he hoped that more media concerns will think about how they could have covered this campaign—and future races—differently.