Strip away "horse race" stories about who was leading or trailing in the polls, and coverage of issues relating to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton's fitness for office was an identical 87 percent negative for each candidate, said the report by Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
"The real bias of the press is not that it's liberal. Its bias is a decided preference for the negative," said the report, written by Harvard political science professor Thomas Patterson.
The report looked at coverage on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News Channel nightly newscasts, along with The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. The media analysis firm Media Tenor judged the tone of stories. For instance, a story about the FBI reopening an investigation into Clinton's emails was judged a negative for her, and a USA Today story about lawsuits against Trump and his business was a negative for him.
With all stories included, Patterson said 71 percent of the overall coverage for Trump and Clinton was negative, 29 percent positive. The 2000 race was 75-to-25 percent negative. From his announcement, Trump received far more attention than any rival. This fall, Trump had more opportunities in the media to define his opponent than Clinton had with him, the report said.
Patterson said there was more coverage about Clinton's emails than any policy issues put forth by either candidate.
During the nomination fight, Trump crowded out his opponents in the media. Evidence that his campaign was catching on led to more positive coverage. "My sense is that a lot of the early coverage was so 'isn't this fun' that I think he got some insulation from being outrageous," Patterson said.
He suggested the negative tone may be why the intense campaign interest as measured in television ratings didn't fully translate into voter turnout. Turnout statistics from November's election are still being tabulated, but there were an unusually large number of voters who either abstained from the presidential selection or entered write-in candidates, said Michael McDonald, who runs the U.S. Elections Project, which collects data on voter turnout across the country.
Negative campaigns run by each candidate affected the coverage, Patterson said. But the political scientist believes that negativity is essentially baked into campaign coverage — reporters get more attention and professional accolades for critical pieces.
Earlier studies show a startling change: during the Kennedy-Nixon campaign in 1960, more than three-quarters of the coverage was judged positive, the Harvard report said.
David Bohrman, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who helped with NBC's political coverage this year, said academics shouldn't be too quick to dismiss how negative the candidates were. "The reality is, these campaigns were brutal," he said.
Bohrman said he believes smart, interesting work is rewarded — not negative reporting.
"I don't think the goal of anyone reporting is to be negative," he said. "I think reporters genuinely want to figure out who these people are who want to be president of the United States."
The biggest issue for mainstream news organizations coming out of campaign 2016 is their relevancy given the hunger of many consumers to seek out news sources — including fake news sites — that reflect their opinion.
"The traditional gatekeepers were out there saying 'this is true and this is not,'" Bohrman said. "But they were lost in the noise of 4,200 other sources of information."
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