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The Dartmouth
February 24, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Ellis: Negative Nancies

The media perpetuates negative candidate coverage and political polarization.

I don’t mean to open old wounds, but it’s time to have a conversation about the 2016 election and its media coverage. In an age when various kinds of media have more influence over political campaigns than ever before, the 2016 election stands out. The vast and particularly damning negative coverage of Donald Trump, which did little to slow his campaign, seems to be reflective of an era during which the conventional wisdom of “no coverage is bad coverage” is correct. If this is true, how should the public consider and value the media coverage of campaigns, and to what extent do politicians themselves now play a role in creating their own press? 

For better or for Trump, the 2016 election will go down in history for many reasons. A study of the election conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government found that Trump received far more coverage by various news outlets during the primary season, of it mostly positive, despite his conservative and particularly problematic rhetoric. Moving toward the general election, Hillary Clinton and Trump both received far more negative press than substantive coverage of policies. The study notes that the magnitude of the individual “allegations” surrounding both candidates was rarely questioned, a factor which could have played a large role in the election’s outcome. Further, the Washington Post found that during Trump’s early days in office, media coverage from outlets such as ABC, CBS and NBC was 91 percent negative, which is significant considering that candidates in the 2012 presidential election received at most 38 percent negative press at any given time. 

While the vast majority of Clinton’s and Trump’s coverage was negative, there are still large differences in the amount of coverage received by each candidate. Regardless of tone, a Washington Post analysis found that Trump’s name appeared in the headlines of almost 15,000 articles during the election cycle, while Clinton’s name appeared less than half of that amount. The sheer volume of discourse on Trump was at times deafening; it seemed as though scandal after scandal followed his campaign while Clinton was continually barraged with old issues concerning her personal life and her conduct as Secretary of State. This difference in coverage is interesting, as it seems as though Clinton was not judged for her experience or ability to do the job, but rather for her past failures and controversies. Trump, on the other hand, was judged for his current remarks, rhetoric and potential rather than for his experience. 

Clearly, the bombardment of negative press surrounding Trump did not stop him from winning. If this is the case, what does this say about how Americans value scandals and media representation? How should candidates themselves change their strategies to reflect this media coverage? In an age in which bad coverage is better than no coverage, it seems as though an intelligent strategy would be to create polarizing and astonishing press about oneself in an effort to stay relevant. Like it or not, Trump was able to stay in the headlines because he had a new “scandal” almost every week. The overwhelming amount of social unrest caused by Trump’s comments and actions, and the press coverage thereof, simply meant that there was little room to discuss Clinton or substantive policy in the media. This strategy of overflow seemed to work, which I believe changes the game of modern politics.

If the new aim of the political game is to get coverage, conduct flies out the window. Politicians would benefit more from making widely polarizing claims, such as the suggestion of a “database of Muslims,” rather than attempting to please a wider audience. This also furthers the already increasing ideological gap between Republicans and Democrats, which a 2014 Pew Research study found to be the “defining feature of early 21st century American politics.” This growth of political polarization could very well be correlated with the current change in media coverage of campaigns and the movement toward more negative and more personal coverage rather than coverage on policy. Although they may be correlated, there appears to be no research that supports a causal link between negative media coverage and increasing political polarization. Additionally, the normalization of these kinds of behaviors has huge implications for minority groups in America and for the vast group of individuals disparately affected by Trump era rhetoric. 

It is difficult to say if the 2016 cycle is an outlier in media coverage, but research and current media trends tend to support the hypothesis that both negative and personal coverage of political candidates will continue. In this self-fulfilling cycle, if the media continues to cover candidates who make the loudest and boldest claims, candidates will continue to become more polarized in their claims, which in turn will create more polarizing elections. It’s even more difficult to assert what the media’s role in this relationship should be and what responsibility they have to control the news, if any. There may be no prescriptive way to stop this trend or remedy it, but it is important to consider when looking to the future of this nation in 2020. 

At some level, and soon, the American public must stop confusing political media coverage with episodes of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” When the future of this nation is treated like a tabloid magazine, it risks not only political efficacy, but the outcome of entire presidential elections. If this cycle isn’t broken, it wouldn’t be unusual to eventually see TV “stars” as presidential candidates and presidents paying off porn stars as a normalized phenomenon — oh, wait.