News Coverage of the 2016 National Conventions: Negative News, Lacking Context

by Thomas E. Patterson

Sep 1, 2016

A new report from Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy analyzes news coverage of the 2016 Republican and Democratic national conventions, and whether this coverage, which was overwhelmingly negative, best served the needs of the public.

This report is the third in a multi-part series of research analyzing news coverage of candidates and issues during the 2016 presidential election. The study examines news coverage during the four-week convention period, starting with the week prior to the Republican convention and concluding with the week following the Democratic convention.

The daily news audience is larger than that of the convention viewing audience, meaning that many people learn about the conventions through the news media's version of the events. Coverage of Donald Trump continued to outpace that of Hillary Clinton during this period, but, notably, both candidates received negative coverage.

Negative news reports about policy positions, for example, outnumbered positive reports 82 percent to 18 percent. Trump experienced a reversal of the "good press" he had received earlier in the campaign, with his reaction to the Democratic convention speech of Khizr Khan generating the most negative attention. Although Clinton's coverage was more positive than Trump's, it was still negative on balance, with a full tenth of her coverage revolving around allegations of wrongdoing.

What appeared to be missing from this negative coverage, however, was context. For example, although Clinton's email issue was clearly deemed important by the media, relatively few stories provided background to help news consumers make sense of the issue—what harm was caused by her actions, or how common these actions are among elected officials. And in keeping with patterns noted earlier in the election cycle, coverage of policy and issues, although they were in the forefront at the conventions, continued to take a back seat to polls, projections, and scandal.

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 TimesUSA TodayThe Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post, and The Washington Times. 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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