The decline of the American press is nowhere more evident than in its coverage of the 2016 presidential race.
Rather than examine the policies and substantial issues embodied by each of the candidates, the press has has focused on the personalities of the major party contenders, starting with the primary campaigns and continuing after the nominations were declared at the national conventions.
Admittedly, the contrasting personalities of the two contenders has never been greater — the flamboyant huckster and the wooden machine politician — but Americans are given little notion of what the candidates represent and what they actually stand for.
And now a series of studies from Harvard University’s Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, confirms the worst.
He writes about his findings for The Conversation, an independent open source academic journal:
Years ago, when I first started teaching and was at Syracuse University, one of my students ran for student body president on the tongue-in-cheek platform “Issues are Tissues, without a T.”
He was dismissing out of hand anything that he, or his opponents, might propose to do in office, noting that student body presidents have so little power as to make their platforms disposable.
Sadly, the news media appears to have taken a similar outlook in their coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign. The stakes in the election are high. Key decisions on foreign and domestic policy will be affected by the election’s outcome, as will a host of other issues, including the appointment of the newest Supreme Court justice. Yet, journalists have paid scant attention to the candidates’ platforms.
That conclusion is based on three reports on the news media’s coverage of the 2016 campaign that I have written for the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where I hold a faculty position.
The third report was released today and it covers the month-long period from the week before the Republican National Convention to the week after the Democratic National Convention.
The first report analyzed coverage during the whole of the year 2015 – the so-called invisible primary period that precedes the first actual contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The second report spanned the period of the primaries and caucuses.
10 major outlets studied
Each report was based on a detailed content analysis of the presidential election coverage on five television networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC) and in five leading newspapers (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and USA Today).The analysis indicates that substantive policy issues have received only a small amount of attention so far in the 2016 election coverage. To be sure, “the wall” has been in and out of the news since Donald Trump vowed to build it. Other issues like ISIS and free trade have popped up here or there as well. But in the overall context of election coverage, issues have played second fiddle. They were at the forefront in the halls of the national conventions but not in the forefront of convention-period news coverage. Not a single policy proposal accounted for even 1 percent of Hillary Clinton’s convention-period coverage and, collectively, her policy stands accounted for a mere 4 percent of it.
Trump’s policies got more attention, but not until after the Democratic convention, when he made headlines several days running for his testy exchange with the parents of a slain Muslim U.S. soldier.