News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Primaries: Horse Race Reporting Has Consequences

by Thomas E. Patterson

Jul 1, 2016

A new report from Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy analyzes news coverage of the 2016 presidential primary races and how it affected the candidates' chances of winning the nomination, concluding that coverage of the primaries focused on the horse race over the issues – to the detriment of candidates and voters alike.

The report picks up where the Center's previous report concluded, analyzing coverage of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders from January through June 2016.

Some of the questions Patterson investigates include:

  • Why did Trump receive so much more coverage than the other presidential candidates, and why was his coverage positive in tone when the Republican race was still being contested and yet negative in tone after it had been decided?
  • Why was Rubio's coverage so much more negative than that of another unsuccessful Republican contender, Cruz?
  • Why was Clinton's coverage substantially more negative than Sanders', and why did Sanders get so much less coverage than she did?
  • Why did the candidates' character and policy positions receive so little attention relative to the candidates' chances of winning?

The Shorenstein Center study is based on an analysis of news statements by CBS, 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.

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