Media and Money

Research shows media coverage is based on American interests

Katie Bullock, Editor-in-chief

News coverage of the 2016 presidential election has been called biased but many believe American interests are what dictate news coverage.

“News outlets tend to frame things in ways that will get people to watch,” journalism teacher Erica Burton said. “That’s a tactic they have to use in a world where there are so many [news] outlets.”

Burton went on to say that the increased number of outlets leads to a subsequent increase in over-reporting, and the sentimentalization of many news stories.

Media Research Center recently reported that ABC, CBS and NBC covered Republican Party nominee Donald Trump’s sexual harassment case for a combined four hours and thirteen minutes within a 24-hour period. During that same period, by the same news stations, new WikiLeaks regarding Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mails received only 36 minutes of coverage.

Graphic by Katie Bullock - Information complied by Jonathon Stray
Graphic by Katie Bullock

This excessive coverage is not an isolated event.

According to the New York Times, as of March 2016 Trump received nearly two billion dollars worth of free media coverage, through both social media and the free media, compared to Clinton’s estimated $746 million dollars of free coverage.

Some believe excessive coverage could be the result of Trump’s rise in poll numbers earlier this year, because of a feedback loop that suggests a direct correlation between a candidate’s publicity and the number of votes they receive.

The below graph, from the 2015 quarter four primary, shows conclusively that positive or negative coverage does not matter. Many believe it is the amount of coverage, not the content of that coverage, that determines a candidate’s success in the polls.

“All publicity is good publicity,” Burton said. “Your name being out there, hashtag, trending, it’s want you want. Good or bad it doesn’t matter. As long as you can keep your name in the media it’s a good thing.”

Americans often help decide who keeps their name in the media every time they log into Facebook because news outlets use social media trends as a guide to decide what stories to cover, since trends are usually a good representation of what is interesting to Americans.

According to the Media Insight Project, 66 percent of Millennials follow music, TV shows, or movies. However, only 43 percent regularly follow national politics.

Covering trending events gets people to watch the news, which also leads to increased revenue from ad sales, giving news outlets more money.

“Every time a controversial tweet or video is posted by or about a candidate, it’s reported about, talked about, and analyzed on TV and radio,” North Kansas City School District’s director of media Susan Hiland said. “While goals of a TV station are to inform viewers and be a community partner, like other businesses it has to make money. Higher ratings mean more ad revenue.”

Burton believes that the media piggyback off American interests, such as sports, to get more viewers. 49 percent of Millennials tune in regularly to sports such as baseball, football, and soccer according to the Media Insight Project. Now the same is true for presidential elections, as media outlets create coverage that views like a showdown between two teams, two parties, two people, in order to get viewers interested.

“Campaigns are like sports,” Burton said. “This whole thing is really just a carnival because that’s what people like. It’s very polarized, red and blue, Republican vs. Democrat, guy vs. girl.”

News media created this political division by increasing their amount of negative coverage.

Wesleyan Media Project found that between 2000 and 2012 the amount of negative ads in presidential elections increased by over 100 percent, while the number of positive ads dwindled by nearly 75 percent.

According to Burton, the increase in negative ads is the result of American competitiveness.

“It’s America; it’s about winning,” Burton said. “People respond more to negative [news coverage] because they’re competitive. It’s not about liking your own candidate. You want to hate the other candidate more.”

Presidential candidates receive a lot of news coverage, but a large majority of that coverage focuses on scandalous, dramatic events and not on a candidate’s policy.

“There needs to be a lot of reform in news media,” Burton said. “But in the world of cable network there’s really not much anyone can do. The media are just doing their job. They’re trying to make money, and scandal sells.”