It seems ironic that fairness seems to get slighted constantly. Whether you are a child with a toy, or a presidential candidate, fairness is something we all want. The question is, should we expect it?
This 2016 election has been bizarre to say the least. In one corner, a candidate so consistently brash and absurd, the media is beginning to have the feel of a scratched record breaking under its own scrutiny of the deplorability this sleek-talking, well-dressed businessman brings to a table he probably didn’t pay for. And in the other corner, a candidate so unlikeable, and buried under 25 years’ worth of political dirt, she actually gives the other a chance to win.
The media hasn’t seen something like this before, and if it has the product never smelled so foul. So then, in the name of fairness, what is the media to do?
It’s no mystery who the media favors in terms of quantity of coverage. Donald Trump is scaling walls (pun intended) compared to the other candidates forced to cram into an elevator. He has received unprecedented amounts of free media coverage; almost $2 billion worth of it according to the New York Times and mediaQuant.
But what is the quality of that coverage? A Harvard study done by Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy says it has changed overtime. Throughout the initial primary contests (Iowa, NH, SC, NV) Trump received 37 percent of all Republican Primary coverage, with 57 percent of news statements being positive to only 43 percent negative. Clinton had a positive to negative balance of 44 to 56 in this time period.
But as the primary season carried on, while his amount of coverage went up, so did the negative news statements. By the final month of the primaries (after Trump was the lone Republican candidate), Trump was receiving 43 percent of election news coverage, but his positive to negative balance was 39 to 61. Clinton received 37 percent of election news coverage, and had a balance of 49 to 51.
Why did this change happen? To start, it’s the way Trump’s campaign had been framed from the beginning. He exceeded expectations and therefore was mostly framed as a “gaining ground” candidate, while candidates such as Ted Cruz fell on the “losing ground” side of the spectrum, which resulted in negative media. Meanwhile, the content focused on each candidate was not so much what is defined as “substantive content,” which is content that deals with candidates’ policy, characteristics, and their histories. Rather, they focused on “the competitive game,” which focuses
on the “the struggle of the candidates to come out on top.” In other terms, despite Trump’s questionable past, the coverage early on was focused on who was winning (something Trump did a lot of in the primaries), and as time went on and substantive content became more important, Trump began to fall.
It also didn’t help Trump that his opponents dropped out five weeks before the primary season ended, as it led to less coverage for the Republican’s race, and more coverage on Trump’s policies and his character; a topic that had jumped from less than 10 percent early on to 19 percent by the final month [of the primaries].
Fast forward to the present where revelations of Trump’s past regarding sexual assault are coming to light; according to the Hill, the evening programs on ABC, NBC and CBS covered allegations of sexual assault involving Trump for a combined 23 minutes total. Hillary Clinton’s newest WikiLeaks email dump that contained, “derogatory comments by senior campaign officials about Catholics, Latinos and the NAACP, sympathy for Wall Street, advocation for open borders and blatant examples of media collusion with said campaign,” received a combined 1 minute and 7 seconds. A negative coverage ratio of 23:1 (Trump to Clinton).
Through these types of statistics, it’s clear that the media is (or at least has become) biased against Trump’s campaign. While it’s not by definition fair however, is it the media’s job to be fair? Throughout the election, Donald Trump has consistently bragged and gained favor for being different than the leaders currently in place. Yet when the media covers him differently, he complains. So is it necessarily unfair for the media to cover him differently, or unfair for Trump to demand he be treated the same, despite being different?
It comes down to what we believe the media’s role should be in presidential elections. Since, 1972 the media has acted as the arbitrator between candidates and voters. It fundamentally decides which candidates are the most fit and able, something Bernie Sanders learned.
Sanders, from the get-go, was the most popular candidate (in terms of positive to negative balance), but consistently struggled with quantity of coverage. In the initial contests, he started off strong, receiving 46 percent of the Democratic Primary coverage due to a very strong showing in Iowa (where he lost by a fraction of a percent), then dominated in New Hampshire, followed by narrowly losing in Nevada. Early on, his campaign was framed as “gaining ground,” similar to Trump. Meanwhile, Clinton, who was expected to do well, was only skidding by, which framed her as a “losing ground” candidate. As the primaries went on however, Hillary pulled more ahead, and Bernie saw his coverage drop from 46 percent in the beginning to 20 percent by the end. In total, Sanders received less coverage than even Ted Cruz, who dropped out five weeks before the last contests.
It’s a very popular theory that Sanders slid in the polls due to less coverage. But from the start, a breakdown of his popularity shows that while he was praised for his ideas and his talk about poverty and the top 1 percent, the media never saw him as an electable candidate. Therefore, it was practically an uphill battle to begin with (at least according to history).
Yet the media having this kind of role creates a conflict, as the values of politics are much different than those of news. As the Harvard study puts it, this creates a “refracted” version of the presidential campaign. The news is in the hunt for the dog-race of the election, while politics has to have a focus on “substantive content.” We don’t break down that content early on, so when we get to October and we know more about our candidates personally, we’re left looking around asking why we are choosing between the lesser of two evils.
Perhaps with this role, it can be argued that it isn’t the Medias job to be fair. In terms of news values it should be, but in taking the role of political arbitrator it makes sense to compromise those values sometimes. The media acts as a mirror and a watchdog. The mirror shows society what it is so it can assess, and the watchdog keeps lookout to make sure people in positions of power do what they’re supposed to. We’ve been shown Donald Trump, and the media, for the most part, seems to have taken a stand against him. We’ll see on November 8 if the people agree. But until then, fairness can take a backseat. It hasn’t necessarily been needed anyway.