Research report

News coverage of the 2016 general election: how the press failed the voters

07 Dec 2016
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This report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy analyzes news coverage during the 2016 general election, and concludes that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump received coverage that was overwhelmingly negative in tone and extremely light on policy.
 
The negativity was not unique to the 2016 election cycle but instead part of a pattern in place since the 1980s and one that is not limited to election coverage. “A healthy dose of negativity is unquestionably a good thing,” writes Thomas Patterson, the study’s author. “Yet an incessant stream of criticism has a corrosive effect. It needlessly erodes trust in political leaders and institutions and undermines confidence in government and policy,” resulting in a media environment full of false equivalencies that can mislead voters about the choices they face.

The study found that, on topics relating to the candidates’ fitness for office, Clinton and Trump’s coverage was virtually identical in terms of its negative tone. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump?” asks Patterson. “It’s a question that political reporters made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign.”

This is the final report of a multi-part research series analyzing news coverage of candidates and issues during the 2016 presidential election. The study tracks news coverage from the second week of August 2016 to the day before Election Day.

This Shorenstein Center study is based on an analysis of news reports by ABC, CBS, CNN, 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. The research was partially funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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