A FAIR analysis of front-page election coverage in three major dailies revealed a strong emphasis on horserace politics at the expense of issue coverage. The study found a lopsided focus on Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and an overwhelming focus on the presidential race at the expense of all other electoral contests.
The analysis examined all front-page election stories from the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today from August and September, sorting them into six different categories: issues, campaigns, candidates, process, voters and international.
Campaigns and Voters
Of the 217 total stories, 47 percent focused on the campaigns—pieces centered on who was “gaining ground” or “teetering,” who was “broadening their outreach” or altering their strategy—and, of course, who raised more money. The lead of a New York Times article (9/5/16) typified this approach:
Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump ran virtually parallel campaigns on Monday as they geared up for the final stretch of the presidential race. She made nice with the news media by opening up her campaign plane and chatting with reporters. He followed suit, inviting a smaller group of reporters onto his plane and answering questions during the 30-minute flight.
Most, but not all campaign stories featured these sorts of empty calories; some dealt with important questions of candidates’ leadership, demeanor and conflicts of interest. One piece (Washington Post, 8/30/16) highlighted Trump’s “us vs. them” strategy, often blaming US problems on minority groups. Another (New York Times, 9/3/16) detailed Clinton’s cozy relationship with and frequent courting of the ultrarich.
Another 12 percent of front-page election stories were focused on voters. Over half of these stories featured straightforward polling reports, while the others were more detailed looks at voter mood and logic. The New York Times covered voters particularly well; giving voice to their doubts and hopes for the candidates (9/14/16, 9/9/16). The Washington Post (8/22/16) and USA Today (9/13/16) both published some illuminating voter pieces, but many merely regurgitated poll data.
When campaign strategy pieces are combined with voter stories—two categories that tend to emphasize the “horserace,” the bare question of who will win—they made up almost three-fifths (59 percent) of all front-page election stories.
Issues and International
Stories that directly focused on policy Issues facing the electorate, on the other hand, were only 12 percent of front-page election coverage. Of the 26 issue-oriented stories, five focused on terrorism, four on the economy, three each on immigration and Russia, and two on the Supreme Court. Syria, race, voter ID laws, guns, entitlements, poverty, trade, transparency and nuclear weapons each had one. Important issues like climate change, healthcare, education, drugs, policing, abortion and taxes were the subject of no front-page election stories during the study period.
A number of issue-oriented pieces featured thoughtful and substantive journalism. Notable examples were stories on the absence of the poor from Trump and Clinton’s agendas (New York Times, 8/11/16), a detailed look at stalling world trade (Washington Post, 9/28/16) and a glimpse at how the next president will transform the Supreme Court (USA Today, 9/30/16).
While articles about how candidates would deal with a particular country or overseas situation were counted as issue stories, those that looked at the reaction of other countries to the election were counted separately as international stories. These stories were even more limited in their scope than the issue stories, with five of the eight stories in this category focused on Russia and Putin.
The disproportionate focus on international stories on terrorism, Syria and Russia echoed the media’s agenda in the three presidential debates (FAIR.org, 10/21/16). This emphasis during the study’s timespan might be partially explained by news events: the New York and New Jersey bomber, the continued deterioration of the Syrian civil war and the alleged Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee, as well as ongoing focus on and criticism of Trump’s expressed admiration for Putin. But given that relatively little electoral coverage was devoted to policy issues, the strong focus on one set of challenges necessarily crowded out other important topics.
The papers did give a few other issues—like trade, retirement programs and race—modest attention, but many of those stories, like the majority of the other issues stories, gravitated towards shallow “he said/she said” references to issues rather than delving into the truth. A September 19 article in the Washington Post (9/19/16), for example, discussed the candidates’ views on confronting ISIS:
[Clinton] added that she had laid out a comprehensive plan to meet the evolving nature of this threat and take the fight to ISIS everywhere they threaten us, including online… Trump said current anti-terrorism efforts are insufficient at home and abroad.
The authors neglected to further explain Clinton’s “comprehensive plan.” They did mention Trump’s support for profiling and waterboarding, but failed to provide any facts or independent evaluation as to the legality or effectiveness of these tactics.
One Washington Post story (8/21/16) spoke of the Clinton campaign crafting “a detailed agenda for her possible presidency”—but almost apologetically, stressing that they were “careful not to sound as if she is measuring the draperies quite yet.” One would hope that a detailed policy agenda would be something that journalists would demand of a candidate, whether or not there were “growing expectations…that she will win.”
The newspapers of record are not the only ones to blame for not informing the public on important issues and the candidates’ stance on those issues. Since the start of 2016, ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News spent only 32 minutes of airtime on issue coverage, over half of which was devoted to terrorism, according to a study by media analyst Andrew Tyndall (10/26/16).
Candidates and Process
Candidate stories—pieces related to a candidate’s background, history and character—made up 20 percent of the total sample, and many were substantive. Among the 43 candidate stories, the most covered aspect was Clinton’s pneumonia episode, with a total of eight front-page stories dedicated to the matter. Another five articles dialed in on Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of State, with three looking at the Clinton Foundation.
Trump-heavy stories didn’t center around a few issues like Clinton’s; instead, they mirrored the never-ending controversies cropping up around his campaign: his false claim that Clinton started “birtherism,” his $25,000 gift to the Florida attorney general who considered investigating Trump University, and his refusal to release his tax returns, among a host of other controversies. Five pieces examined the candidates’ trust in a more generalized manner—focusing on their approaches to transparency, conflicts of interest and their consistency on issues.
Notable examples of candidate stories included a report on the Clinton Foundation’s sketchy ties (New York Times, 8/20/16) and Trump’s potential connections to the mob as he built his real-estate empire (Washington Post, 9/17/16).
Process stories about how the elections are being carried out likewise contained some strong reporting, including investigative stories on voting rights (Washington Post, 9/2/16; New York Times, 8/1/16), dark money (USA Today, 8/17/16) and the Koch brothers’ plan to shape a new GOP” (New York Times, 9/7/16). Unfortunately, these made up only 4 percent of the front-page election stories.
Presidency Above All Else
FAIR’s analysis also revealed an almost singular focus on the presidential race by the three publications in their election coverage—almost 90 percent of front-page election stories dealt with presidential politics, with all other Senate, House, state and local races confined to the remaining 10 percent.
This is a narrow approach in an election year where the Senate is up for grabs between the two major parties and will certainly determine much of the effectiveness of the new president. Twelve states (and Puerto Rico) will hold gubernatorial elections on November 8, and numerous issues will go before voters in state-level ballot initiatives, including votes to legalize marijuana in five states, Maine’s consideration of a switch to ranked voting and Colorado’s groundbreaking vote to create a single-payer healthcare system.
In the two-month study period, the papers put more front-page focus on Donald Trump than on Hillary Clinton. Only a third of the presidential stories focused more or less equally on both candidates. Of the 128 presidential stories that primarily focused on one candidate, Trump was featured in 87 and Clinton in only 41. No third-party or independent candidate was featured in a front-page story during the study period, not even sharing focus with another candidate.
USA Today published issue-oriented stories more frequently than the other two outlets—17 percent, compared to 13 percent in the New York Times and just 8 percent in the Washington Post. The Post was most likely to publish campaign stories (53 percent) and candidate pieces (25 percent), while USA Today covered voters/polling at the highest rate (20 percent). The New York Times front page featured markedly more international stories (6 percent, compared to just 1 percent for each of the other papers).
Benjamin Johnson is a political journalist based in Brooklyn.