Friday, July 08, 2016

What role has the U.S. media played in the rise of Donald Trump?

The role of the media in the rise of Donald Trump has been the topic of a fair bit discussion on political web pages. Rarely, however, is the actual impact of the media on politics subject to serious analysis. Helping fill the gap is a new study from Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. It recently released a study of media coverage of the pre-primary period in the current presidential election campaign on the part of major media outlets including broadcast networks NBC, CBS and FOX as well as the newspapers the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post. CNN is a notable omission from this list.

The findings, to say the least, are striking. It is important first to understand that a media tilt one way or another can have a paradoxical impact on political choices. There is no one-to-one relationship where favourable media coverage and attitudes (or the reverse) necessarily creates the expected consequential impact. However, it remains true that the media can profoundly influence beliefs in some circumstances in what seems to be the obvious way.

The Shorenstein study deserves to be taken seriously. It justifies its focus on the pre-primary period on the grounds that political success prior to the primaries is "the best predictor of which candidate will win the presidential nomination", better than Iowa and New Hampshire.

It employed a careful methodology that I have quoted in detail at the bottom of this post.

There was no more important finding than the following: "during the year 2015, major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers—a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone—he received far more “good press” than “bad press.” The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls."

Moreover the media, essentially seduced by the carnival barker character of Trump's news value, could not look away, and helped enable his success:
"So what explains the news media’s early fascination with Trump? The answer is that journalists were behaving in their normal way. Although journalists play a political brokering role in presidential primaries, their decisions are driven by news values rather than political values.  Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational—the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention. Trump fit that need as no other candidate in recent memory. Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee. Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch."
The free media was worth millions to Trump. A graphic from the study:

Source: Media Tenor. Based on amount of positive and neutral news coverage in eight news outlets—CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post— for the period January 1-December 31, 2015.

So the media was pro-Trump but what of Hillary Clinton. The media tended to ignore the Democratic race because at first it simply assumed Hillary Clinton was going to win the nomination. Nevertheless, they still had some things to say:
"For her part, Clinton might have wished that the Democratic race received even less attention than it did, given that her coverage was the least favorable of the leading contenders, Democratic and Republican. Month after month (see figure below)... her coverage was more negative than positive. There was only one month in the whole of 2015 where the tone of her coverage was not in the red and, even then, it barely touched positive territory. During the first half of the year, excluding neutral references, it averaged three to one negative statements over positive statements. Her coverage in the second half of the year was more favorable, but still damning. The ratio for that period was more than three to two negative over positive.... 
Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end. 
Source: Media Tenor, January 1-December 31, 2015.

Not surprisingly, the media at first ignored Bernie Sanders. However, the Sanders campaign, somewhat like Howard Dean's endless summer anti-war effort in 2003, was able to generate enormous crowds at events that did get his message out. His followers then donated millions of dollars online, making him impossible to ignore. And then the media started to cover him:
"Strictly in terms of tonal balance—good news vs. bad news—Sanders was the most favorably reported candidate—Republican or Democratic—during the invisible primary....
Sanders’ issue positions also netted him positive coverage. Although they accounted for only about 7 percent of his coverage, they were a source of “good news.” News statements about Sanders’ stands on income inequality, the minimum wage, student debt, and trade agreements were more than three-to-one positive over negative.... That ratio far exceeded those of other top candidates, Republican or Democratic....
Sanders’ media coverage during the pre-primary period was a sore spot with his followers, who complained the media was biased against his candidacy. In relative terms at least, their complaint lacks substance. Among candidates in recent decades who entered the campaign with no money, no organization, and no national following, Sanders fared better than nearly all of them. Sanders’ initial low poll numbers marked him as less newsworthy than Clinton but, as he gained strength, the news tilted in his favor."
Despite negative coverage for Clinton and positive coverage for her opponents she has both defeated Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination, and leads Trump by 5 to 6 points in the national polling averages. Polling wizard Nate Silver currently gives her a 77% chance of winning in November.

There is more to politics than favourable media coverage, much more. Clinton's poll numbers tell us that we are seeing what appears to be a paradoxical outcome from a year-long process that in the end has defied the direction of media coverage. Clinton's strength derives from multiple sources including longstanding relationships, which I won't to into here. However, we should not forget that mass media can be better at telling the public what to think about, than what to think. This whole area is much more complex than is generally assumed.

The study has received little attention. One would not expect mass media to place too much emphasis on studies documenting their failures, but the Shorenstein effort deserved more attention than it has received. I do think Shorenstein made a mistake when they incorporated Fox News and excluded CNN.  Fox isn't really a news organization per se. It is likely it made the results more anti-Clinton and pro-Trump than otherwise. However, I doubt it would have changed the balance of the overall findings.

A major story in the news this week has been coverage of the fact that Hillary Clinton will not face criminal prosecution for her handling of emails as Secretary of State. The build-up to this conclusion has meant nonetheless plenty of negative coverage for her (including during the period of the Shorenstein study).

There is a legitimate question here about media coverage: "Was this conclusion that no charges were justified easily predictable?" One the best analysts of issues of this kind is Josh Marshall of the widely-read blog Talking Points Memo. After the FBI made its announcement he penned an analysis that argued:
"What is most notable about this news from a political and news perspective is that this outcome was entirely predictable, indeed almost inevitable, based on the facts that were publicly known about the case.
Let me say that again. There was always the chance that there were dramatically different or new facts the FBI had that had never been made public or intimated in any way. Possible but extremely unlikely. Given what we knew, criminal charges weren't even in the realm of reasonable consideration. You could find this out with just a little bit of reporting, speaking to former federal prosecutors, legal experts, really anyone knowledgable about the relevant law and past practice."

So how was it that the media missed this?  I think the there is a persistent media bias I like to call the "good story bias". Essentially the media always want a good story. That influences them in many ways including how they treat any case that potentially affects the possibility that a political figure has committed a crime, major or minor. They want to believe it is true because it is a much better story than "nothing to see here folks". But if they are seriously committed to the truth, they should be looking that the possibility of the opposite is true in major cases such as this one. Josh Marshall sees the Clinton email story as an example of massive media failure:
"All this said, this was 99.9% predictable and 100% obvious. It's a mammoth press failure that for various reasons this reality was concealed from the public."
Methodology of Shorenstein Study

The key paragraph is below.

"The data were provided by Media Tenor, a firm that specializes in collecting and coding news content. Media Tenor’s coding of print and television news stories is conducted by trained staff members who visually evaluate the content. Computer-based coding is less reliable and is not used in Media Tenor’s research. Coding of individual actors (e.g., presidential candidates) is done on a comprehensive basis, capturing all statements of more than five lines (print) or five seconds (TV) of coverage for a given actor. Coders identify relevant themes (topics) for all actors in a given report and evaluate tone (positive or negative) on a six-point scale. These tonality ratings are then combined to classify each report for each actor as being negative, positive, or having no clear tone. Coding quality is maintained through comprehensive spot checks and inter-coder cross checks to maintain a minimum 85 percent inter-coder reliability rate.