President Donald Trump has been attempting to undermine the 2020 census for years, first through his failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the form, and more recently by attempting to exclude undocumented immigrants from being counted for congressional redistricting and forcing an early end to the Census Bureau’s door-to-door operations. And in at least one major metropolitan area with lower-than-average census response rates so far, only one of the major television stations has consistently covered Trump’s recent attacks on the census -- and two stations failed to cover them at all.
An accurate count in the decennial census is crucial, as it is used to, among other things, determine where hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending is directed; conduct local public safety and emergency preparedness; and plan growth. And of course the census is used to apportion members of Congress in the House of Representatives, based on how many people are living in each state.
Trump has worked hard to rig the census count in his party’s favor, including by trying to add a citizenship question in part to disadvantage the Democratic Party and Latinos and increase the political power of white Americans. He’s also moved to exclude “unauthorized immigrants from the numbers used to divide up seats in Congress among the states,” a decision that spurred multiple lawsuits against his administration. And he’s planned to stop conducting in-person interviews for the census a month earlier than planned, which four former Census Bureau directors warned would “result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas across our country.” Any such undercount would have consequences throughout the country well beyond 2020.
William Frey, a senior fellow for the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, explained the harmful impact these moves will have on minorities:
The now-rushed end date—reportedly to accommodate Trump’s insistence to have reapportionment numbers while he is still in office—places a huge burden on the Bureau’s staff. This involves effectively enumerating hard-to-count populations who have not responded to earlier requests, those who have moved during the pandemic, the homeless, residents of dormitories, rural residents, and Native American reservations that have always taken extra efforts to reach. The New York Times estimates that during this period, 60 million households will need to be contacted, in comparison to 47 million at this stage of the 2010 census.
Racial minorities are a large part of this hard-to-count population, and they will likely be undercounted even worse than in earlier censuses if Trump’s directives remain. These include Latino or Hispanic, Black, American Indian, and Asian American populations. If previous censuses are a guide, members of these groups who are low-income, renters, small children, young adults, or foreign-born will be particularly hard to reach. Moreover, given the time crunch, the Census Bureau may be forced to statistically estimate (to a far larger degree than in earlier censuses) information for households that cannot be contacted. This process can lead to even greater undercounts of racial minorities compared to whites.
Baltimore is an area with a hard-to-count population, and much of the city is in the bottom 20% of the nation’s self-response rate -- with areas also at least 10% below its 2010 census response rate thus far. Thus the city would be well-served by local media coverage of Trump’s recent actions to undermine the census. But with one notable exception, Baltimore’s major TV stations failed to adequately report on Trump’s actions, or to even mention them.
A search of the Kinetiq video database for mentions of the census on Baltimore’s four major corporate affiliate stations -- NBC affiliate WBAL, Fox affiliate WBFF, CBS affiliate WJZ, and ABC affiliate WMAR -- turned up lots of ads from the Census Bureau encouraging viewers to fill out the 2020 census. But there was little local news coverage of Trump’s recent actions in the week since they were made public.
Of the four stations, WBAL was the only one to report on Trump’s July 21 memo directing the commerce secretary to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment count for congressional districts, covering it at least five times on July 21 and 22.
WBAL also had the most detailed coverage of the Census Bureau's new plan to end door-to-door response operations on September 30, a month earlier than originally announced. Each of WBAL’s three segments covering this move -- which was reported by NPR on July 30 -- reported that advocates worry it “will miscount and hurt minorities.”
WJZ’s first segment covering this action reported that “critics say this will lead to miscounts in minority groups that have been historically undercounted in the census.” But the station dropped this crucial bit of information from its next three reports on the early end to census field operations.
WBFF, which is owned by the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, failed to cover either of these actions by the Trump administration during the analyzed time frame, even as it reported on the importance of an accurate census count to the city of Baltimore. And WMAR failed to produce even one news report about the 2020 census during this time period, merely referencing it only during coverage of a local food giveaway.
There’s still time for Baltimore’s major TV stations to inform their viewers about Trump’s sabotage of the 2020 census before the residents' opportunity to participate in the census ends. The Associated Press reported on September 6 that a judge ordered the Census Bureau “to stop following a plan that would have had it winding down operations in order to finish the 2020 census at the end of September” until a hearing on September 17. And NPR reported on September 10 that a panel of federal judges ruled that Trump's memo directing the commerce secretary to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment count was illegal -- “an unlawful exercise of the authority granted to the president.”
Media Matters searched the Kinetiq video database in the Baltimore media market for mentions of the word “census” from July 21 to 28 and July 30 to August 5. Only news segments specifically about the 2020 census and headline reads mentioning the 2020 census were counted. Counted segments in the first set were coded for mentions of President Donald Trump's July 21 memo directing the commerce secretary to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment count of the 2020 census, and for any mention of criticism of the memo from legal or advocacy organizations or explicit mentions that it may harm minority representation in Congress. Counted segments in the second set were coded for mentions that the Census Bureau is ending field operations a month prematurely, and for any mention of the potential harm that would have on minority representation in Congress. Teasers and syndicated programs were excluded.