The hand-wringing over the 2016 election continues more than a year later. Fake news. Russia collusion. James Comey. Wisconsin.
But two researchers, David Rothschild and Duncan Watts, took on an in-depth analysis of the mainstream media that will add to the 2016 debate. Their findings, published in the Columbia Journalism Review, focus on the New York Times’s election coverage. Their starkest discovery: “In just six days, the New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all the policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”
It looked a little something like this:
Watts and Rothschild analyze the Times’s election coverage more broadly, but “Hillary’s emails” stands out as one of the starkest examples. It illuminates a larger problem in the coverage: The researchers found that the Times devoted much more online and print real estate to the campaign horse race and personal scandals for both candidates than it did to their policies on topics such as health care and taxes.
Americans are dealing with the whiplash of that right now.
Watts and Rothschild compiled data for all front-page and online articles published by the Times between September 1, 2016, and Election Day on November 8. They divided those into categories: Campaign Miscellaneous; Personal/Scandal (which they broke down between Clinton and Trump); and Policy, which they broke into no details, Clinton details, Trump details, and both details. Here’s how that shook out:
Both Watts and Rothschild say they’re not picking on the Times or knocking its coverage. They chose the publication because of its journalistic influence and reputation. Basically, if the Times is messing up, then what the heck is everyone else doing?
It’s still all about her emails
“It’s just a tremendous amount of ... front-page real estate devoted to this scandal,” Watts said of Clinton’s emails. That overemphasis was noted long before Clinton lost the Electoral College.
As Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote last November, before the election:
Network newscasts have, remarkably, dedicated more airtime to coverage of Clinton’s emails than to all policy issues combined.
Cable news has been, if anything, worse, and many prestige outlets have joined the pileup. One malign result of obsessive email coverage is that the public is left totally unaware of the policy stakes in the election. Another is that the constant vague recitations of the phrase ‘‘Clinton email scandal’’ have firmly implanted the notion that there is something scandalous about anything involving Hillary Clinton and email, including her campaign manager getting hacked or the revelation that one of her aides sometimes checked mail on her husband’s computer.
Rothschild says the front-page or online headlines also matter because people rarely read through to the bottom of stories — even well-reported, thorough ones. “Clinton email scandal” is what casual news observers see blaring, renewing — as Yglesias also said — the feeling that something nefarious is going on.
And it’s not as if the Times, or any other media outlets, didn’t cover Trump’s scandals. They did. But there were so many, from relentless daily outrages to the dirt from Trump’s past, that it made it more likely, maybe even necessary, for journalists to move on to the next one thing.
But as Watts put it: “The monolithic story that’s constantly renewing itself seems to be disproportionately damaging compared to this kaleidoscope.”
Which gets back to the question of false equivalency, and whether the media should have put as much focus as it did on Clinton’s email scandal, which, as Yglesias wrote, was “bullshit”:
The real scandal here is the way a story that was at best of modest significance came to dominate the US presidential election — overwhelming stories of much more importance, giving the American people a completely skewed impression of one of the two nominees, and creating space for the FBI to intervene in the election in favor of its apparently preferred candidate in a dangerous way.
The researchers also aren’t discrediting the threats of fake news or misleading coverage from alt-right outlets in fomenting misinformation. It exists. But as Rothschild says, “this is a wake-up call” for the failings of mainstream media.
Watts also suggests that as the mainstream media frets over the influence of such sources, it has somewhat underplayed its own still-vital role in shaping the public narrative. “That’s very true of the narrative around the election: all about personalities and scandals,” he said. “It was not about policy and substance — and it could have been.”