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Donald Trump's general election media problem

The divisions among national Republicans could prevent Trump from getting equal treatment from the mainstream news media.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the Republican primaries, Donald Trump managed the news media to his advantage. The extensive coverage he received helped him win.

Before explaining why, a few caveats: It is hard to determine if media coverage affects a presidential candidate's electoral fortunes. It is hard to separate the effect of how the media chooses to cover campaign events from the events themselves. (That is, would the event have had the same effect regardless of how it was covered?) Also, when users of different news sources have divergent opinions, it is hard to tell whether outlets are persuading their audiences or if the consumers are selecting news sources based on their preexisting views.

All that said, Trump likely benefited from how the news media covered the primary campaign. He received substantially more coverage than the other Republican candidates, especially on cable news and talk radio.

In the primaries, this helped him in three ways. In a crowded primary field, just getting covered helps voters predisposed to support a candidate like you pick you over similar rivals. In a crowded field, a voter wanting to avoid wasting his or her vote on a hopeless candidate might pick only from among the few who get the most media attention, using media coverage as a proxy for viability. Second, the outlandish statements Trump made (calling Mexican immigrants rapists, claiming he would build a wall and Mexico would pay for it, proposing to ban all Muslim immigration) were popular with a substantial proportion of Republican primary voters, even while turning off most of the broader population.

Third, and crucially, these positions (and Trump himself) were not shunned by the conservative movement's main media outlets: talk radio and Fox News. He was not universally accepted, but some of the biggest talk radio hosts — such as Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, and often Rush Limbaugh — usually refrained from attacking him or spent lots of airtime complaining about his critics without explicitly endorsing the candidate. (One big exception was Megyn Kelly. But even during her conflicts with Trump, she didn't spend much time criticizing him on air. And even she tried eventually to make peace with him.)

However, the media environment poses a major challenge for Trump in the general election campaign. The key question is whether most major Republican politicians will unite behind him — not just officially endorse him, but also refrain from criticizing his positions and rhetoric. If not— if substantial numbers of major Republican figures refuse to say supportive things to reporters about Trump's campaign — it will lead to fairly negative media coverage.

Journalistic norms about objectivity and balance

The professional norms that still shape the behavior of a large portion of journalists will be Trump's major problem in the summer and fall campaign. It is true that in the fragmented modern media landscape, there are a substantial number of political writers who are happy to mix news with their opinions and interpretation. But the news that reaches a large portion of the public (especially the less politically engaged voters who are more persuadable) still comes from journalists who see themselves as ideologically neutral and are influenced by traditional notions of objective journalism.

Many journalism scholars think of "objectivity" as a set of social norms about how to cover controversial topics (on the historical development of these social norms, see especially this and this). On some issues, it is conventional to report two or more opinions on the topic, but on other issues it is acceptable to just assert that one view is true.

A useful way to think about this is with the diagram below, which political scientist Daniel C. Hallin used to describe media coverage of the Vietnam War in his 1986 book The Uncensored War: the Media and Vietnam. Hallin points out that journalists who see themselves as nonpartisan treat political claims as either in the sphere of consensus, controversy, or deviance.

Some claims — for instance, that smoking causes cancer — are in the sphere of consensus. The opposite claim — that smoking is harmless — is in the sphere of deviance. Journalists don't feel obligated to report both sides of this debate, just the side in the sphere of consensus.

On the other hand, most journalists consider a question like "Has the Affordable Care Act improved the health care system?" to be in the sphere of controversy. The only way to cover the effects of the Affordable Care Act objectively is to report on both sides of the question.

Figure 1 from p. 117 of Daniel C. Hallin. 1986. The Uncensored War: the Media and Vietnam. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Figure 1 from p. 117 of The Uncensored War: the Media and Vietnam. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

The statements made by prominent politicians in each party usually determine which national issues are in the sphere of controversy. If most of the leading politicians in both parties agree, their position will be treated by journalists as in the sphere of consensus. Journalists will give dissenting views little or no coverage.

However, if the leading members of the two parties take opposite positions, nonpartisan journalists will treat the issue as in the spheres of controversy and explain both positions without favoring either side.

This type of behavior by journalists leads to a related phenomenon, which communication scholars call "indexing." This idea, first articulated by political scientist Lance Bennett, is that different views on a political issue are covered in proportion to how many political and governmental officials in Washington express those views.

In one recent example, Bennett and co-authors Regina Lawrence and Steven Livingston found that how often journalists described the treatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners in Iraq as torture depended on how many political officials in Washington described it that way. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, descriptions of prisoner treatment as torture were fairly common by officials in Washington and by the press. But shortly afterward, the use of torture media frames declined quickly as most Washington sources aggressively advocated for more benign frames.

Trump's problem

How will Donald Trump's positions and rhetoric be treated by journalists who think of themselves as nonpartisan and subscribe to these professional norms? The big thing determining if his assertions are treated as in the sphere of controversy or rejected as belonging to the sphere of deviance is whether other prominent Republicans support him on a daily basis.

If they do, journalists will feel obligated to treat Trump as a normal candidate. They will cover both sides of the issue equally — such as whether Mexican immigrants are rapists, if Trump can build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it, or if the US should ban all Muslim immigration. Trump's view would be the treated as the Republican position and the other side as the Democratic position.

In Hallin's terms, these issues would be in the sphere of controversy. However, if national Republicans regularly fail to agree with Trump and often criticize him, his positions would be treated as in the sphere of deviance.

When Hillary Clinton takes positions in the general election campaign, I expect national Democratic politicians to be as supportive of her as they have been of Barack Obama since the point that he became the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. Some more conservative red-state Democrats and some extremely liberal Democrats will complain about a few of her positions, but most will try to avoid publicly contradicting her when possible.

If Trump gets the same level of party message unity as Clinton does, then they will likely get roughly equal treatment by the mainstream media. On the other hand, if Trump cannot achieve a similar level of message unity from national Republicans, he will likely not be covered equally.

Public statements by prominent Republicans so far do not bode well for Trump. Speaking about Trump's candidacy overall, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has told reporters, "I object to a whole series of things that he's said — vehemently object to them. I think all of that needs to stop. Both the shots at people he defeated in the primary and these attacks on various ethnic groups in the country."

When Trump criticized the federal judge handling the Trump University lawsuit for having Mexican ancestry, House Speaker Paul Ryan called Trump's position "the textbook definition of a racist comment." He went on to say, "I'm not going to defend these kinds of comments because they're indefensible." Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) called Trump's comments "racially toxic" and stated, "I'm going to speak out when I think [Trump] does things that are inconsistent with the best interest of the country."

After the mass shooting in Orlando left 49 people dead and Trump responded by thanking his supporters for their congratulations and reiterating his call for a ban on Muslim immigration, a long list of Republican senators, including solid conservatives like McConnell, John Cornyn (TX), Joni Ernst (IA), and Roger Wicker (MS), refused to publicly support Trump's statements.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said that the speech Trump gave responding to the attack "wasn't the type of speech one would expect" from a president. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) brushed off a request to support Trump's position in a creative way, saying, "We don't have a nominee." When reporters pressed him by saying Trump was the presumptive nominee, Alexander cryptically responded, "That's what you say."

When reporters asked Paul Ryan to respond to Trump's statements, he again undermined Trump, saying, "This is a war with radical Islam. It is not a war with Islam. Muslims are our partners." Ryan also told reporters, "I do not think a Muslim ban is in our country's interest. I do not think it is reflective of our principles, not just as a party, but as a country."

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy contradicted Trump by saying, "You don't ban somebody on race [or] religion. I don't see that coming to the [House] floor." House Homeland Security Committee Chair Michael McCaul rebuffed Trump by saying, "I think you have to be a little careful with the rhetoric. You don't want to inflame or help the recruiting efforts."

Several of these Republicans, including McConnell and Ryan, have officially endorsed Trump. But that won't improve how the mainstream media covers Trump's campaign day-to-day unless they also refrain from criticizing his statements on the campaign trail. If national Republicans refuse to support (and often criticize) Trump's campaign messages, it makes it easy for national reporters who aspire to be nonpartisan not to give Trump and his critics equal billing. There will likely be much more space given to Trump's opponents than to his campaign messages.

When Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, pundits like Paul Krugman and others worried that reporters committed to nonpartisanship would cover his unconventional positions and behavior as simply the mirror image of the Clinton campaign. Each side's positions would be given equal space and covered with a similar tone. History suggests this will happen only if national Republicans are unified in supporting Trump and his message.

However, if national Republicans continue to be much less united around Trump that national Democrats are around Clinton, Trump could face a major disadvantage in media coverage.

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.