In the last day or so I have seen a number of contacts retweet the following:
It’s a provocative claim! Since I spent years working on how to count news coverage in different ways, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the methodology used here. Boehlert and his colleagues at Media Matters didn’t do the counting themselves. They picked up on “recent tabulations from Tyndall Report, which for decades has tracked the flagship nightly news programs.” I’ve never heard of Tyndall Report before. (The about page is extremely cryptic.) That not a good sign, but it could also be a good way to learn new things.
Boehlert wrote up this report as something groundbreaking, but he didn’t notice obvious red flags. He copies the Tyndall finding that 2008 was a high water mark for “issues” coverage with 220 minutes. Does 220 minutes for a year’s worth of news seem odd to you? Let’s do a little math. If we are looking at nightly news programs that only broadcast 5 days a week, that is approximately 220 weekdays from Jan 1, 2008 through election day. Which is more plausible: networks haven’t combined for more than one minute per day of “issues” coverage since 1980, or someone is using an awfully narrow definition of issues coverage.
Media Matters only offered the analysis, but I was able to quickly trace the link back to see the author(s) define their methodology:
Issues coverage is differentiated from candidate coverage thus: it takes a public policy, outlines the societal problem that needs to be addressed, describes the candidates’ platform positions and proposed solutions, and evaluates their efficacy.
The amount of time spent on issues coverage represents the attempt by television news to establish a political agenda that is driven by the perceived problems that the country faces rather than those talking points that the candidates select to promote their own causes.
This looks like an incredibly strict definition of “issues” coverage. The author(s) only include stories where the anchors sat down and said “we want to cover issue X” in detail. Bernie Sanders spent a lot of his campaign going from city to city, giving his stump speech. He talked about a lot of issues in his stump speech, like health care and the minimum wage. Certainly the progressives at Media Matters and their core audience remember this. But any media coverage of Bernie Sanders speeches or interviews with him talking about issues would be excluded from this count. Anything candidates say in a debate would be excluded.
The Tyndall Report isn’t counting how much time TV network news spends on issues. It is counting how much time TV networks spend on a very specific “where do candidates stand on the issues” type of feature. I’m not surprised TV networks have moved away from this feature. It works much better online. People can point and click to compare candidates or take interactive quizzes to see how their views line up with candidates.
I think people buy in to this report because it feels true. A study with more methodological rigor would probably find a decrease in time spent on issues. However, one of the main reasons for this is Donald Trump doesn’t spend as much time talking about issues. Hillary Clinton has responded by campaigning about Trump’s negative personality traits. As Boehlert notes, Clinton has 38 issues on her website and 112,735 words of policy fact sheets (he gives AP credit for these facts, which were published on Aug 29). This doesn’t mean Clinton has talked about each issue in detail or emphasized it on the campaign trail.
I could keep blasting “biased” media coverage if I wanted to – it’s an easy bell to ring. But I want to end on a different question. Let’s assume that out of the things coming from the Clinton camp, reporters currently consider her email server to be the most newsworthy. Could Clinton have done something different to change the narrative? Now I’ll explain why I think the answer is yes. When I studied the 2008 general election I found TV networks interest in a topic was somewhat contingent on candidates bringing up that topic. The national elite media organizations that had access to candidates followed the candidates’ agenda, while sites that lacked access were more independent.
Paradoxically, all the coverage of Clinton’s e-mails and the Wikileaks is an unintended consequence of how she chose to present herself for the general election. Clinton’s policies come off as technical, well-polished versions of fairly standard Democratic ideas for the most part. There isn’t much in terms of new thinking to capture people’s imagination. Instead, the way that Clinton has tried to capture hearts and minds is to emphasize personality traits: her experience versus Trump’s poor temperament. If both candidates want the race to primarily be about judgment, any “scandal” about Clinton will stick more.
When I was a reporter I liked writing the kind of stories that the author(s) of the Tyndall Report crave. But I would be bored out of my mind trying to write these stories in 2016. It’s not because Trump is vague on policy. I loved the challenge of trying to show when officials didn’t understand what they were talking about while still conforming to the norms of objectivity. What would bore me is writing about Hillary Clinton’s policy preferences. It feels like a long list of ideas I have heard before. Don’t get me wrong – most of these policy proposals need to be repeated because they never got a fair hearing in Congress. I’m just saying as a former newsman I recognize the lack of new. I’d rather write in detail about a new Clinton policy proposal that shakes up the Democratic status quo, but it isn’t there. New policy ideas and policy differences would be a better topic for Clinton, they would benefit the audience, and they would give reporters a more well rounded diet of things to write about. It would have been to everyone’s advantage. But contrary to the assumptions of the Tyndall report, the only way to get coverage of new policy ideas is if a candidate emphasizes their new policy ideas.
As a national reporter I might be forced to write more about Clinton’s email as the least bad option for Clinton coverage. Then I’d cry and ask for a new beat. I’d rather do features on the voters or ballot propositions than be on the Clinton plane. Ideally I’d get to use Simpsons quotes! For all the attention being paid to the Presidential race, there isn’t a whole lot of actual news, particularly from Clinton.