How Media Newsworthiness Norms Have Sustained the Trump Candidacy

The mainstream news media's longstanding tools for determining what is or isn't newsworthy have proven inadequate to deal with the candidacy of Donald Trump. This insufficiency was on full display in the intense fascination of the chattering class with the New York Times' lead headline of September 16, 2016: "Donald Trump Clung to 'Birther' Lie for Years, and Still Isn't Apologetic." Most unusual was not use of the word "lie" - though that too was atypical -- but its application to only one candidate. The headline thus violated the prevalent journalistic norm of balance, or neutrality - that is, treating "both sides" equally.

Balance, along with two other key journalistic newsworthiness norms - novelty and conflict -- go a long way toward explaining mainstream media coverage of the Trump vs. Clinton campaign, including Trump's ability - at least prior to the unprecedented events of the past five days -- to remain within striking distance in the polls despite numerous missteps that likely would have sunk most campaigns.

Novelty simply means that surprising stories are more newsworthy than expected ones. So "dog bites man" is not newsworthy, while "man bites dog" is. Conflict, in the context of political campaigns, means that journalists tend to treat negative, critical stories as more newsworthy than positive, uncritical ones.

Beginning with the balance norm, Supporters of Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton, and others, including many conservatives, have accused the media of going overboard in its pursuit of this norm, resulting in so-called "false equivalencies" False equivalency means giving both sides of an argument equal weight, even when one side of the argument is demonstrably more truthful or broadly accepted. An example was the common media practice through much of the first decade of the 2000s of granting climate change deniers equal time in debates over climate science, even though their views represent less than 2% of the scientific community.

In the current campaign, the most noteworthy case in point is equating the dishonesty of candidates Clinton and Trump. The headline for an August 16th Politico feature story asked: "Are Clinton and Trump the Biggest Liars Ever to Run for President?" Viewed in this light, is it surprising that numerous polls show nearly as many Americans viewing Clinton as dishonest as view Trump that way?

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff implicitly responded in an op-ed published on the same day, "...the idea that they are even in the same league is preposterous. If deceptions were a sport, Trump would be the Olympic gold medalist; Clinton would be an honorable mention at her local Y."

The evidence supports Kristoff. As of October 11th, across 267 Clinton statements, Politifact rates 51% as true or mostly true, and 12% as false or "pants on fire." The corresponding figures for Trump, across 287 statements, are nearly the mirror opposite: 16% true or mostly true compared with 52% false or "pants on fire."

Other examples abound of the balance norm arguably leading journalists astray in 2016. For instance, on July 14th, a USA Today headline declared that "Trump, Clinton both threaten free press." The evidence? Trump's side of the ledger includes inciting violence against journalists at his rallies, blacklisting journalists -- and entire news organizations -- that he considers biased against him, and promising to revisit liable laws if elected. What lies on Clinton's side of the ledger that warrants a pox on both their houses? She avoided formal press conferences for much of her primary campaign.

Novelty also fuels the Trump campaign. On one side we have a billionaire reality TV star with no political experience winning the Republican nomination. On the other we have a heavily favored, long-time party insider winning the Democratic nomination. The Republican nominee calls climate change a hoax perpetuated by China, promises to build a border wall and get Mexico to pay for it, ban Muslim immigrants, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, tear up trade deals, fire generals, reassess the US commitment to NATO, pursue closer ties with Russia, and support the spread of nuclear weapons. He also regularly offers commentaries - typically via Twitter -- hitherto considered fatal in modern presidential politics. These range from accusing a judge of being incapable of impartiality because of his Mexican heritage, to picking a fight with a Gold Star family, to questioning the heroism of POW-turned-Senator John McCain, to fat shaming a former beauty pageant contestant.

On the other side, the far-more-cautious Democratic nominee promises to, well, mostly build on the current president's policies. This is not to say that Clinton has not suffered from occasional self-inflicted wounds, most notably her seeming obfuscations over her email practices as Secretary of State. Scandals are, of course, novel. This presumably accounts for the 2-to-1 prevalence of news coverage of the email scandal, compared to her policy proposals during the party convention period, reported in a study by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.

Clinton was also much criticized for stating that "[W]e're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business," as she sought to explain her clean energy policy proposals.

Still, given this comparison, is it any wonder that Trump has dominated Clinton in media attention? According to a New York Times study, as of February 2016, Trump had received nearly $2 billion worth of free media airtime, nearly three times as much as Clinton's roughly $750 million.

Trump's media attention advantage also extended to the party conventions. According to the Harvard study, Trump accounted for 27% of news coverage, compared to 20% for Clinton, during the four-week period from the week prior to the week following the two conventions. The only exception was during the Democratic convention, when Clinton accounted for 23% of news coverage, barely surpassing Trump's 21%.

Novelty also explains the media's fascination with the horse race, which has arguably helped sustain the Trump campaign. For instance, also according to the Harvard study, 56% of news coverage during the 2016 primaries focused on the horse race, compared to 33% on the campaign process and 11% on substantive issues.

The horserace frame dominates the extensive news coverage of polls, including the numerous daily tracking polls conducted by media organizations. Looking across these polls, one is left with an overwhelming sense that the election, at least before the October 7th release of lewd comments by Trump caught on tape, was predominantly characterized by relative stasis. That is, since last March, Clinton has enjoyed a steady lead over Trump in national polls, mostly ranging from small (1-3 points) to moderate (4-5 points).

For instance, on the day prior to the first presidential debate, on September 25th, RealClearPolitics.com showed Clinton leading Trump in their poll-of-polls by 3.9 percentage points. Eleven days later, on October 5th - that is, two days following the vice presidential debate and a seemingly endless media stream of commentary regarding how the debates shaped momentum in the race - the same poll-of-polls showed Clinton leading by, you guessed it, 3.9 percentage points. Indeed, listening to news coverage of the polls has repeatedly yielded a dramatically different picture, in which Clinton may "open up a big lead," after which "Trump catches up," followed by "Clinton widens her lead," inevitably leading to "Trump narrows the gap," and so on.

Why? Change is interesting; stasis is dull. Novelty - the gap narrowed or widened - is good news; It's absence -- the race basically stayed the same - is bad news. This norm is so powerful that its difficult to imagine the media abandoning the horse race in favor of greater emphasis on aspects of the campaign that are largely unchanging, like Hillary Clinton's policy proposals.

Conversely, by repeatedly altering his policy proposals - banning Muslims, or not, deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants, or not, a $9 trillion tax cut, or a $4 trillion cut -- Trump, ironically, manages to keep them novel, and so in the news considerably more than Clinton's proposals. For instance, the Harvard study reports that during the party convention period, 13% of Trump's coverage addressed his policy proposals, compared to 4% of Clinton's coverage

By focusing on the horse race, and leaving audiences with the impression that the race is changing more than it is, news organizations communicate the message that Trump could win. This, in turn, helps sustain, or even increase, support among Republican Party elites and GOP voters, thereby becoming self-fulfilling.

The final key newsworthiness norm is conflict. In the context of political campaigns, this means negativity. The current campaign provides ample evidence of this norm in action. According to the Harvard study, 38% of all news reporting during the party convention period was negative, compared to 21% positive. A majority (56%) of Clinton's coverage, and three-fourths of Trump's, during their respective conventions was negative. Fully 84% of news coverage of Clinton's policy proposals during 2015 was negative. Trump's coverage was more likely to be neutral, but negative coverage of his policy proposals still dominated positive coverage by 43-12%. Once again, in light of the information the public receives from the media, is it any wonder that Clinton and Trump are the two least popular major party candidates in modern history?

Since the first presidential debate Donald Trump has arguably suffered about the worst two-week period in the history of presidential campaign politics, culminating (for the moment) with the October 7th "hot mic" revelations, followed by his threat during the second presidential debate to jail his opponent if he wins the election. Some recent polling, at both the state and national level, suggest that Clinton might truly be opening up substantial polling and electoral college advantages, though its too soon to say with confidence. This begs the question of whether prevailing newsworthiness norms will lead the media going forward to portray the race as it is, or in whatever manner makes for the most compelling storyline.