Harvard Professor: News Media Chose “Damaging Headlines” Over Policy And Context In Clinton Coverage
Harvard professor Thomas E. Patterson conducted an analysis of media coverage in the four weeks surrounding the Republican and Democratic national conventions and found that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton “has suffered substantially more negative news coverage” than her Republican rival, Donald Trump. Patterson concluded that if Clinton loses the election, news media’s disproportionately negative and context-free coverage of her email set-up as secretary of state will be partly to blame.
Throughout Clinton’s presidential campaign, media’s heavy reporting on Clinton’s private email server has been largely characterized by errors, mischaracterizations, and false reporting. Studies, including another from Harvard, have confirmed that Clinton has been the recipient of overwhelmingly negative news coverage, while Trump’s has been more positive.
Patterson, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, wrote in a September 21 Los Angeles Times op-ed that accompanied the release of his new study that if Clinton loses in November, her “email controversy did her candidacy in,” with “the news media” giving “a helping hand.” Patterson noted that coverage of Clinton’s emails and other scandals, which comprised 11 percent of her coverage and was 91 percent negative, more than doubled coverage of her actual policies. Patterson also pointed out that context, such as the fact that “the merging of private and official emails by government officials was common practice,” was “largely missing” from reporting on the emails and that, “As for Clinton’s policy proposals and presidential qualifications, they’ve been completely lost in the glare of damaging headlines and sound bites.” From the opinion piece:
My analysis of media coverage in the four weeks surrounding both parties’ national conventions found that [Clinton’s]use of a private email server while secretary of State and other alleged scandal references accounted for 11% of Clinton’s news coverage in the top five television networks and six major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. Excluding neutral reports, 91% of the email-related news reports were negative in tone. Then, there were the references to her character and personal life, which accounted for 4% of the coverage; that was 92% negative.
While Trump declared open warfare on the mainstream media — and of late they have cautiously responded in kind — it has been Clinton who has suffered substantially more negative news coverage throughout nearly the whole campaign.
Not a single one of Clinton’s policy proposals accounted for even 1% of her convention-period coverage; collectively, her policy stands accounted for a mere 4% of it. But she might be thankful for that: News reports about her stances were 71% negative to 29% positive in tone. Trump was quoted more often about her policies than she was. Trump’s claim that Clinton “created ISIS,” for example, got more news attention than her announcement of how she would handle Islamic State.
Clinton’s emails and the accompanying narrative — “she can’t be trusted” — have been a defining feature of coverage from the campaign’s start. Only occasionally have reporters taken the narrative a step further. How important, exactly, are her emails in the larger context of presidential fitness? And just how large a transgression are they?
Decades ago, the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press concluded that reporters routinely fail to provide a “comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in the context that gives them some meaning.” Whatever else might be concluded about the coverage of Clinton’s emails, context has been largely missing. Some stories spelled out how the merging of private and official emails by government officials was common practice. There were also some, though fewer, that tried to assess the harm, if any, that resulted from her use of a private server. As for Clinton’s policy proposals and presidential qualifications, they’ve been completely lost in the glare of damaging headlines and sound bites.