A Study Confirms It: Media’s Attempt at “Objectivity” Failed the Public in 2016


Every political journalist should take some time to peruse the new study from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center that does a postmortem on mainstream coverage of the 2015 election and concludes it had major problems.

Using a mix of data and analysis, Thomas E. Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the school, slammed the way false equivalence, a need for balance rather than truth, helped elect Donald Trump. Patterson discussed, at first, the larger implications of positive vs. negative coverage, noting that while negativity ruled the day for both candidates, the tenor and subject of the negative coverage (ahem! emails!) was wildly skewed, inadvertently reinforcing a single narrative about Clinton that helped defeat her:

… Clinton’s controversies got more attention than Trump’s (19 percent versus 15 percent) and were more focused. Trump wallowed in a cascade of separate controversies. Clinton’s badgering had a laser-like focus. She was alleged to be scandal-prone. Clinton’s alleged scandals accounted for 16 percent of her coverage—four times the amount of press attention paid to Trump’s treatment of women and sixteen times the amount of news coverage given to Clinton’s most heavily covered policy position.

This paragraph reminded me exactly of Ethan Coen (yes, that Ethan Coen)’s election postmortem piece in The New York Times, which succinctly summed up the problem with the entire campaign’s coverage. Cohen’s wry mock thank-you list included this response to “our friends in the media.”

Thank you for preserving reportorial balance. You balanced Donald Trump’s proposal that the military execute the innocent families of terrorists, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced pot-stirring racist lies about President Obama’s birth, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced a religious test at our borders, torture by our military, jokes about assassination, unfounded claims of a rigged election, boasts about groping and paradoxical threats to sue anyone who confirmed the boasts, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced endorsement of nuclear proliferation, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced tirelessly, indefatigably; you balanced, you balanced, and then you balanced some more. And for that — we thank you. And thank you all for following Les Moonves’s principled lead when he said Donald Trump “may not be good for America, but he’s damn good for CBS.”

So, why did this happen when the press is purported to be “liberal”? Patterson explains that it’s all about the structure of daily journalism, something that Trump was able to play into expertly. Each day the reporters on the trail were in search of a juicy story, and Trump had those to spare.

Trump’s dominant presence in the news stemmed from the fact that his words and actions were ideally suited to journalists’ story needs. The news is not about what’s ordinary or expected. It’s about what’s new and different, better yet when laced with conflict and outrage. Trump delivered that type of material by the cart load. Both nominees tweeted heavily during the campaign but journalists monitored his tweets more closely. Both nominees delivered speech after speech on the campaign trail but journalists followed his speeches more intently. Trump met journalists’ story needs as no other presidential nominee in modern times.

In order to be an effective check on Trumpism, in other words, media figures will have to take a new look at their entire way of reporting: their news cycles, their ideas about fairness and balance, and more importantly, their need for a “story.” As we noted in our roundup of advice posts for journalists in this crucial time, our industry is in unchartered territory and we need to make sure we’re speaking truth to power, not just looking for a powerful narrative that obscures the truth.