Media Coverage of Primaries Unfairly Tilts Outcomes, Harvard Study Confirms

Dubbing Trump “the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee.”

A recently released Harvard study is accusing major print and broadcast media of improperly influencing the presidential primaries in the months leading up to the first contests.

Thomas Patterson, Harvard’s Bradley Professor of Government and the Press, in conjunction with the Shorenstein Center on Media, Public Policy, and Politics, conducted an analysis of eight different cable networks and newspapers and found that media companies devoted an unprecedented amount of coverage to Donald Trump from the start of his campaign, effectively shutting out over a dozen of his competitors. The Shorenstein analysis also learned that the Republican candidates got roughly twice as much media coverage as the Democratic candidates.

According to the Harvard study …

The majority of the coverage for Trump was either positive or neutral.


Trump coverage graph
The study primarily focused on the seven to eight months leading up to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, which Patterson described as the “invisible primary.” Patterson called the invisible primary a critical period for candidates, as the media’s reporting on each candidate can influence their standing in polls, which influences endorsements, all of which influence how candidates perform in the first contests:

Of all the indicators of success in the invisible primary, media exposure is arguably the most important. Media exposure is essential if a candidate is to rise in the polls. Absent a high poll standing, or upward momentum, it’s difficult for a candidate to raise money, win endorsements, or even secure a spot in the pre-primary debates… In the early going, nothing is closer to pure gold than favorable free media exposure. It can boost a candidate’s poll standing and access to money and endorsements. Above all, it bestows credibility.

The Shorenstein Center concluded that Donald Trump’s rise from a fringe candidate with no fundraising potential and low poll numbers to the front-runner before the Iowa caucus was mostly due to the tremendous volume of media coverage he attracted, dubbing him

“(Trump) the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee.”


Trump value of media coverage


On the Democratic side, the Harvard study found that not only did the media cover the Republican invisible primary twice as much as the Democratic race, but that Hillary Clinton’s campaign dwarfed Bernie Sanders’ campaign in media coverage, garnering three times more media coverage in 2015. Five Republican contenders (Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, and Marco Rubio) all got more media coverage than Sanders, despite Sanders emerging as the leading contender to Clinton in the summer months.

Patterson remarked that the astonishing lack of media attention for Sanders’ campaignundoubtedly left permanent damage on his ability to be competitive in the Democratic primaries and caucuses, as the media’s earliest coverage deemed the Vermont senator a “likely loser.”

Name recognition is a key asset in the early going. Unless poll respondents know of a candidate, they’re not going to choose that candidate. Out of mind translates into out of luck for a presidential hopeful in polls and in news coverage. Nor is name recognition something that can be quickly acquired… even as late as August of 2015, two in five registered Democrats nationally said they’d never heard of Sanders or had heard so little they didn’t have an opinion.

Additionally, most of the media coverage of the Democratic race was about the “horse race” of polling positions for each candidate leading up the first caucuses and primaries rather than the issues they campaigned on. The Shorenstein Center concluded that only 7 percent of the media’s reporting on Bernie Sanders was about his issues, whereas 28 percent of Clinton’s coverage was issue-focused.

For supporters of Sanders, the one benefit of low media coverage was that the coverage the Sanders campaign did attract was mostly positive after Sanders started winning, while Clinton had the most negative coverage out of all Democratic and Republican candidates:

Trump Bernie issuesThe perception of the Clinton vs. Sanders race created by the media’s earliest coverage generated an aura of inevitability for Hillary Clinton and encouraged a dismissive attitude toward Sanders despite his early mega-rallies on the West Coast and huge advantage with small-dollar donations.

The study should vindicate supporters of Bernie Sanders and non-Trump Republican candidates alike,

as it proves the media’s inherent bias in covering the billionaire real estate developer and the former Secretary of State for the purpose of driving ad revenue and clicks rather than for the purpose of informing the public.

Excerpted from, written byTom Cahill | June 14, 2016
Cahill specializes in coverage of political, economic, and environmental issues.

Photo & Graphic Credit: The Shorenstein Center
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