Conservatives take it as a given that the mainstream press has been hostile toward Donald Trump since he declared his candidacy for president. And it’s true that there’s been no small amount of critical reporting since his inauguration. But a new study of the online “media ecosystem” by researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society finds that throughout the 2016 campaign the political press consistently focused its coverage of Trump on the key issues he was running on—immigration, jobs, and trade—and just as consistently focused on Hillary Clinton’s scandals to the exclusion of the issues she ran on. Overall, the tone of the coverage of both candidates was negative, but the difference in the content clearly worked to Trump’s advantage, perhaps decisively so.
According to the study’s lead researcher, Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler, this wasn’t only a matter of lazy he-said/she-said journalism. And it wasn’t, as some have speculated, just a result of the widespread assumption during the campaign that Clinton would win. There’s an element of truth in both of those explanations, but Benkler says that, in instances, this imbalance was the result of the mainstream media’s “being played, or manipulated, by a very sophisticated and disciplined right-wing messaging campaign.”
The numbers are stark. Looking only at mainstream sources—like The New York Times, Politico or CNN—the researchers identified almost 70,000 sentences about Clinton’s e-mails, which dwarfed the number of references to all other topics for both candidates. After that, there were around 22,000 mentions of the Clinton Foundation. The issue associated with Clinton that got the most attention was jobs, which were mentioned in around 15,000 sentences. Overall, sentences mentioning Clinton’s various scandals outpaced those focused on her agenda by a ratio of around four to one. (This finding is consistent with another study released by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Media Politics and Public Policy last December.)
The opposite was true in coverage of Trump. Whether it was his refusal to release his tax returns, allegations of sexual harassment and assault by over a dozen women, his fraudulent university, or his foundation’s raising money for dubious purposes—none of these stories was mentioned more than 10,000 times. Jobs, immigration, and trade, on the other hand, were mentioned in stories about Trump over 75,000 times.
The study relied on a set of analytic tools called Mediacloud that the Harvard team and their colleagues at MIT developed over the past nine years. Their system analyzes who reads news stories, which outlets cite them, and who shares them across social media. It places news outlets on the ideological spectrum by looking at cross-linking patterns between sources, the reach of stories on Twitter and Facebook and the ratio of tweets by partisan influencers on the left and the right. To complement this “big data” approach, researchers also took a more granular look at certain stories, developing brief case studies of how they developed, how widely they were disseminated and by whom. Their database contains information about the content and spread over two million articles published during the 18 months leading up to Election Day.