In the weeks leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, The New York Times and The Washington Post filled their news pages with reporting about a caravan of migrants moving through Central America and Mexico toward the United States. The caravan was more than 1,000 miles from the U.S. border -- a journey of several weeks on foot -- and shrinking. But President Donald Trump, in a series of demagogic statements aimed at bolstering GOP chances in the elections, warned that the caravan constituted an “invasion” and a national emergency, and the Times and Post allowed him to set their news agendas.
In the eight days before the election, the Times and Post ran a total of 84 news stories in their print editions mentioning the caravan, putting 25 on the front page. In the eight days since, they ran 39 such stories, only eight of which ran on A1. That’s a decline of roughly 54 percent in news stories and 68 percent in front-page news stories.
I wrote about this coverage the Friday before Election Day, noting that many of the articles were laudable on their merits -- they told the migrants' stories, debunked presidential lies and conspiracy theories, and highlighted facts that undermined Trump’s demagoguery. But taken together, their sheer volume couldn’t help but to fuel his fearmongering and make it impossible for other important pre-midterm stories to break through.
The papers are still producing valuable reporting on the topic -- about the migrants’ journey, the administration’s response of deploying U.S. soldiers on the border and taking executive action to limit asylum, and Trump’s own slackening interest in the caravan, among other angles. But with the elections over and in the absence of regular comments from the president, they are publishing much less of it, and they’re giving the stories they do publish less prominent placement.
Newspaper resources, column inches, and front-page real estate are all limited -- the amount of each that a paper devotes to particular stories reveals its editors’ priorities and signals to the public which issues are important. The Times and Post appear to have given the caravan outsized coverage when Trump was fixated on it, and now that he isn’t, the papers are providing the issue with substantially less attention.
The Post has published a total of 109 articles in its print A section mentioning the caravan since it formed, putting 24 of those articles on the front page. The paper ran 48 such articles, during the eight days before the election, 13 of them on the front page; those numbers dropped to 20 and three in the eight days after the election, a decline of 58 percent and 77 percent, respectively. Before the election, the paper published five or more articles referencing the caravan on 10 different days. Since the election, it has done so twice.
The Times has published a total of 88 articles mentioning the caravan in its print A section, putting 24 of those articles on the front page. During the eight days before the election, the paper ran 36 such articles, putting 12 on the front page; those numbers dropped to 19 and five in the eight days after the election, a decline of 47 percent and 58 percent, respectively. Before the election, the paper published five or more articles referencing the caravan on six different days. Since the election, it has done so once.
The massive print coverage of the caravan story leading up to the election echoed the story’s dominance on cable news.
Fox led the way, providing more than 33 hours of coverage through Election Day, with the network’s hosts spurring and echoing the president with apocalyptic, conspiracy theory-minded rants about the coming “invasion.” But the day after the election featured no discussions whatsoever focused on the caravan, while the network spent four minutes and 57 seconds covering the story the day after that.
After Trump took Fox's advice and tried to turn the caravan into an election issue, CNN and MSNBC also devoted hours and hours of programming to the story. As with the papers, these cable networks produced far more critical coverage of the story, but they nonetheless focused their attention on the subject Trump wanted to discuss. And in the same manner as the Post and the Times, the volume of their reporting has dropped substantially since the election.
As I wrote before the election, the facts about the caravan neither matched Trump’s crisis narrative nor justified the saturated coverage the story received. Since then, the “first wave” of the caravan has reached the U.S. border (most of the migrants are still 1,000 miles away), while the administration has imposed radical new asylum restrictions in response. But while those factors suggest that the caravan has become increasingly newsworthy on its merits, the Post and Times have produced fewer articles mentioning it and put fewer on their front pages.
These results strongly suggest that for these newspapers and cable networks, the newsworthiness of particular issues is strongly tethered to whether Trump is publicly commenting on them. Whatever he’s talking about quickly becomes the most important story in U.S. political journalism. And once he stops commenting on it, the story falls out of the headlines.
Reporters might respond to this criticism by saying that the president’s comments are always newsworthy. But that sentiment is not reflected in actual news coverage -- the closing days of the 2014 and 2016 election cycles were both dominated by Republican attacks on Democrats, not by President Barack Obama’s commentary.
Moreover, under the current president, that argument cedes substantial power over the public debate to a notorious liar and conspiracy theorist. Journalists should carefully consider what that means. By allowing Trump to serve as their assignment editor, decision-makers at newspapers and cable news channels are ignoring critical issues in favor of covering what the president wants to talk about.
This is an ongoing crisis in political journalism, and it won’t end unless journalists heed the lessons of the last few years and learn how to respond when conservative leaders try to manipulate them in bad faith in order to focus the public’s attention where they want it. That will require them to make independent calls on what deserves coverage and how much, rather than following the whims of Trump and his ilk.
Media Matters searched the Nexis database for New York Times and Washington Post articles mentioning the caravan between October 12 and November 14. We included articles from only the print editions of each paper, and we limited the results to articles from the news (A) sections; articles from editorial, opinion, op-ed, business, sports, and other sections were excluded. For the November 7 edition of the Post, which was not available in the Nexis database as of publication, two Media Matters researchers independently reviewed a hard copy of the paper’s A section.
Shelby Jamerson contributed research