Ten of America’s most prominent media outlets ramped up their negative coverage of Hillary Clinton in the final two weeks of the presidential campaign while also writing fewer positive stories about her, according to a new report released today by Harvard University researchers.
From late September to the middle of October — around the time of the presidential debates — the ratio of critical coverage of Clinton was roughly three positive stories for every two negative ones.
But as the election headed to a close, that gap dramatically widened. In the final two weeks, there were closer to seven negative pieces about Clinton for every two positive pieces, according to the report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.
Of course, part of that change was driven by new facts on the ground — like the revelations about the FBI’s decision to briefly reopen an investigation into Clinton’s private email server, and the WikiLeaks disclosures — that Donald Trump voters may regard as legitimate reasons for more negative stories.
But whatever the cause, according to the Harvard report, talk of Clinton’s alleged scandals hit their peak right before Election Day.
Meanwhile, the tenor of coverage for Trump moved in the opposite direction in the home stretch. Whereas the blizzard of negative Trump stories was worst for him around the time of the debates and the release of the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape, the media softened on the Republican nominee in the final days of the campaign.
Only 65 percent of stories about Trump were negative in that final week, while a full 35 percent were positive, the report found. Both numbers were the best press he’d gotten since at least before August:
Before Clinton loyalists rush to deride the media over this study, an important caveat: The criteria for “negative” coverage includes stories about the state of the horse race. And around the time Clinton coverage went negative, the polls really were narrowing, at least somewhat, between the candidates.
In other words, a story saying Trump was moving up in the polls — which nobody would consider “unfair” — would be considered “positive” coverage in this study, and a story saying Clinton was losing ground would be considered “negative.” So part of what’s going on here doesn’t necessarily reflect a disproportionate media pile-on over Clinton’s controversies. (Although perhaps the polls were narrowing because of the negative media coverage!)
The researchers at the Shorenstein Center say they relied on Media Tenor, “a firm that specializes in the content analysis of news coverage,” for coding “negative” and “positive” stories. The data was culled from 10 different outlets — ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. You can read more about the study methodology here.