Let’s get this right out of the way: the media are biased, just not in the way you think.
The most common charge is that the mainstream media suffer from a liberal bias. This bias makes them hostile to conservative candidates and causes. The charge is made so often and with such conviction that most conservatives believe it is true.
The evidence is far less convincing.
Conservatives might be surprised to learn that many liberals believe that corporate media don’t give their candidates a fair shake, at least not the ones who haven’t sold their soul to Wall Street (read Bernie Sanders). Systematic analysis, however, indicates the claim is not particularly well supported by the data.
1. Citizens routinely suffer from “hostile media” perceptions. They believe the news is hostile to their particular point of view. This is true regardless of whether you are conservative or a liberal, a Democrat or a Republican. Bias is news that challenges your point of view.
2. The better predictor of perceptions of media bias isn’t actual bias as measured through systematic content analysis. It’s elite claims of media bias. The more candidates cry bias, the more their supporters perceive that such bias is real. Keep in mind that claims of media bias are but one arrow in the quiver of partisan spin, most often used to deflect the impact of negative stories. This is an example of a repeated priming effect, where one claim sets up the listener to believe a subsequent claim, whether true or not.
3. Most candidates—Hillary Clinton included—are deeply suspicious of the news media and are often visibly frustrated by the way they are covered. Clinton, you might recall, proffered the “vast right-wing media conspiracy” in 1998 during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Rumors or accusations of Bill Clinton’s infidelity were first covered by conservative media (mostly talk radio) and then filtered into the mainstream media. News, even real news that starts from a politically suspected source, is discounted. Here’s a political reality: No candidate gets the coverage they want or they believe they deserve.
4. The public has little or no confidence in the news media’s ability to report the news fairly or accurately. The percent of Americans saying they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the news has declined from more than 70 percent in the 1970s to 40 percent in 2015. Gallup has, more recently, reported that confidence in television news and newspapers has dropped to all-time lows (21% and 20% respectively).
5. The most convincing and systematic studies most often conclude that what bias does exist mostly reflects the ideological preferences of news consumers. One recent study, for example, discovered that, on ballot propositions, newspaper endorsements reflect the median voter (or reader) within their local market. Looking across issues, newspapers were to the left of voters on social issues and to the right on economic issues.
6. Candidates are not just passive participants in news coverage. Candidate behavior influences the amount and tone of coverage, as well as the coverage of the issues driving the campaign. Seasoned political consultants understand that generating free (or earned) media coverage can be a powerful but risky media strategy. Donald Trump has brilliantly attracted nearly wall-to-wall news coverage by making himself highly available to news organizations via interviews and by making outrageous and quotable statements. Indeed, the estimated value of the free media probably exceeds his net worth!
While his penchant for controversy has attracted media attention, it hasn’t bought much journalistic love. When it comes to tone, Trump is unquestionably bearing the brunt of negative news coverage.
Alas, Trump has no one to blame but himself. His off-the-cuff “candor” may play with some voters but it opens his campaign up to being easily sidetracked (Khizr Khan) and routinely having to clarify or correct his statements (his Second Amendment assassination comment or his claim that Obama founded ISIS). Contrast his approach to Hillary Clinton and most other political professionals who tightly control their media appearance and carefully parse their words for the most effective language. Politically experienced candidates understand that gaffes do damage, typically far more than any potential benefit of “unfiltered’ talk. Like many political amateurs, especially those from the business world, Trump has proven overly confident in his ability to wing it in his media appearances. The results have been predictable. This may seem unfair to his supporters who believe he is being misunderstood, but they would be wise to remember that—in a single election season—Trump has made more verbal blunders than any politician in recent history. Lesser politicians would have been forced off the stage after “He’s not a war hero,” especially from a candidate who himself dodged the draft.
This gets us to our final point. News coverage of campaigns reflects the campaign context (especially the economy), the broader public mood, and candidate communication strategies. Media bias is, at best, a small and mostly trivial part of the equation. Most of the negative coverage received by Donald Trump has not been the result of a rigged political system or journalistic biases but instead reflects a poorly run campaign and an undisciplined approach to campaign communication.