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A new report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy analyzes news coverage of the 2016 presidential candidates in the year leading up to the primaries. This crucial period, labeled “the invisible primary” by political scientists, is when candidates try to lay the groundwork for a winning campaign—with media exposure often playing a make or break role.
The report shows that during the year 2015, major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers—a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone—he received far more “good press” than “bad press.” The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls.
The Democratic race in 2015 received less than half the coverage of the Republican race. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was largely ignored in the early months but, as it began to get coverage, it was overwhelmingly positive in tone. Sanders’ coverage in 2015 was the most favorable of any of the top candidates, Republican or Democratic. For her part, Hillary Clinton had by far the most negative coverage of any candidate. In 11 of the 12 months, her “bad news” outpaced her “good news,” usually by a wide margin, contributing to the increase in her unfavorable poll ratings in 2015.
The Shorenstein Center study is based on an analysis of thousands of news statements by CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. The study’s data were provided by Media Tenor, a firm that specializes in the content analysis of news coverage.
Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press