SINCE THE START of the 2016 election season, Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, affiliated with the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, has been analyzing election news coverage. He spoke to HKS Magazine in December, soon after releasing the final report of a multi-part research series.

Tom Patterson
Tom Patterson

Q: Did anything in your findings especially stand out?

The primary thing was the amount of attention given to one candidate in particular. Donald Trump was for the media the story of this campaign. He got twice as much coverage as his opponents during the primaries and about 15 percent more coverage than Hillary Clinton during the general election. A second was the degree to which controversies dominated the coverage. They almost always get more coverage than policy issues do, but they just dwarfed them this time. The other outstanding finding was the negative coverage throughout the election season. Trump got very positive coverage early on, but Clinton’s coverage was negative from day one and stayed that way all the way through the November election.

Q: Was this an attempt to attract viewers?

Journalists have difficulty telling positive stories for a host of reasons. For one thing, if they do, they get accused of being flaks either by their colleagues or by the other side. And it’s more than just candidates. If you look at the news coverage about Muslims, the Affordable Care Act, the economy since 2008, they are all covered negatively two to one. Journalists have a mindset that they’re critics, and to some degree they’ve lost the capacity to expose the other side of society and politics. That works to the advantage of anyone who’s running against government.

Q: What do you think news coverage will be like going forward?

There are a couple of things that journalists are now focusing on that challenge the traditional model of reporting. Journalists tend to put politicians’ words out there even when their claims have no factual basis. Since Trump seems to pull many of his facts out of thin air, that’s going to be a challenge for journalists. They have to decide. They can either ignore misstatements of fact or report that this or that statement is a claim without foundation. If they do the latter, they have to apply this to every person they interview. Whatever they decide will be the rules of the road, they’re going to have to stick to them. It’s a tough decision. It gets them out of their comfort zone.

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