By the numbers: How the press failed voters in its coverage of the 2016 election

As Clinton was being attacked in the press, Donald Trump was attacking the press, claiming that it was trying to “rig” the election in her favor. If that’s true, journalists had a peculiar way of going about it. Trump’s coverage during the general election was more negative than Clinton’s, running 77 percent negative to 23 percent positive. But over the full course of the election, it was Clinton, not Trump, who was more often the target of negative coverage (see Figure 1). Overall, the coverage of her candidacy was 62 percent negative to 38 percent positive, while his coverage was 56 percent negative to 44 percent positive.

Negative coverage was the order of the day in the general election. Not a week passed where the nominees’ coverage reached into positive territory. It peaked at 81 percent negative in mid-October, but there was not a single week where it dropped below 64 percent negative.

Even those numbers understate the level of negativity. Much of the candidates’ “good press” was in the context of the horserace—who is winning and who is losing and why. At any given moment in the campaign, one of the candidates has the momentum, which is a source of positive coverage. Figure 2 shows the tone of the nominees’ coverage on non-horserace topics, those that bear some relationship to the question of their fitness for office—their policy positions, personal qualities, leadership abilities, ethical standards, and the like. In Trump’s case, this coverage was 87 percent negative to 13 percent positive. Clinton’s ratio was identical—87 percent negative to 13 percent positive. “Just like Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” as Barry Goldwater said dismissively of America’s two parties in the 1960s…

The real bias of the press is not that it’s liberal. Its bias is a decided preference for the negative. As scholar Michael Robinson noted, the news media seem to have taken some motherly advice and turned it upside down. “If you don’t have anything bad to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.”[3] A New York Times columnist recently asserted that “the internet is distorting our collective grasp on the truth.”[4] There’s a degree of accuracy in that claim but the problem goes beyond the internet and the talk shows. The mainstream press highlights what’s wrong with politics without also telling us what’s right.