Election coverage is heavy with Trump, attacks, polls
Current media coverage of the U.S. presidential election has three overarching characteristics. News coverage is Trump heavy, it features extensive coverage of personal attacks and mudslinging, and it’s loaded with stories highlighting the latest polls.
As a proponent of peace journalism, which encourages reporting that is less sensational and more substantive, these findings are disappointing, though hardly surprising.
First, election coverage is Trump-heavy. A story in Slate Magazine (December 14, 2015), observes, that “Trump coverage was notable, first, for its abundance. A Tyndall Report analysis of the nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC discovered that from January 1 through November, 2015, these newscasts featured 234 minutes of reporting about Donald Trump but only 10 on Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. The motivation for the avalanche of Trump coverage is obvious, according to journalist/media commentator Bill Moyers, who said, ‘Big surprise, the problem is money. Tons of it. Trump brings ratings and ratings raise advertising revenue.’”
The Trump coverage, it must be noted, occurs at the expense of other candidates. Observed Media Matters’s Eric Boehlert, “Obviously, Trump is the GOP front runner and it’s reasonable that he would get more attention than (Bernie) Sanders, who’s running second for the Democrats. But 234 total network minutes for Trump compared to just 10 network minutes for Sanders…?”
Next, coverage is also heavy on reporting about personal attacks and insults.
A Lexis Nexis newspaper database search for Feb. 3-March 3 shows that insult coverage far outstripped coverage of at least two substantive issues. Of the first 1000 hits under “Trump”, 172 featured stories containing the keyword “attacks.” Of the first 1000 hits under “Rubio”, 296 contained “attacks,” while 204/1000 hits under “Hillary Clinton” contained “attacks.” In total, 672 of 3000 newspaper stories, or 22%, were at least marginally about the mudslinging attacks.
Compare that to the newspaper coverage of important issues like immigration (discussed in 2.9% of the stories about Trump, Rubio, and Clinton) and jobs (6.8%).
An identical Feb. 3-March 3 search, done with broadcast news transcripts, showed that 27% of the stories contained at least a mention of “attacks.”
Finally, election coverage is laden with stories about the horse race—the latest polls and who’s ahead. The Lexis Nexis newspaper and broadcast news transcript search found a combined 5975 stories about Trump, Rubio, and Clinton (Feb. 3-March 3). Of these stories, 2003, or 34%, included mentions of “polls.” Coverage of the horse race and polls, in fact, was more than three times higher than coverage of jobs and immigration.
A responsible peace journalist wouldn’t preach that Trump, polls, and insults shouldn’t be covered, but rather that they should receive much less coverage, since each minute of this reporting is a minute that is ignoring other candidates and issues that really matter.
Peace journalism, the principle that reporters should consider the consequences of their reporting while they better serve the public, offers a prescription for what ails election coverage. In Peace Journalism Principles and Practices (Routledge Publishing/fall 2016), I offer several peace journalism-inspired suggestions for improving election coverage, including avoiding “treating the election like a horse race. Polls and surveys are fine, but they are only a part of the story. Instead, concentrate on issues of importance as identified by the public.” I also advise journalists to “avoid letting candidates get away with using imprecise, emotive language. This includes name calling. Instead, hold candidates accountable for what they say, and use precise language as you discuss issues,” as well as offering critical analysis of ideas and proposals put forth by candidates. Trump’s border wall, which he insists will be paid for by Mexico, comes to mind as an item begging for critical analysis.
Journalists have a responsibility to help produce an informed electorate, and not one fed a diet consisting of junk food like polls, mudslinging, and the latest outrageous comment. While it’s true that the candidates aren’t making responsible journalism easy, journalists should still take the high road, and produce more thoughtful pieces about the vital issues that we should be discussing this election year.