News coverage of campaign greatly aided Trump and hurt Clinton, study finds

News coverage of the early months of the presidential campaign strongly boosted Donald Trump’s bid and put Hillary Clinton at a disadvantage, according to a new study from Harvard that is likely to add to the heavy volume of complaints that the media aided Trump’s rise.

From the time he announced his run in mid-June 2015 to the end of the year, Trump received about one-third of all coverage of the Republican race among 17 candidates, according to the study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy that examined all stories on the campaign from eight major television and print news outlets, including The Times.

And although Trump has loudly objected since early in his campaign to coverage he deemed unfair – he announced Monday that he was banning the Washington Post from his campaign events, the latest in a line of more than half a dozen organizations to be frozen out – his coverage during 2015 was overwhelmingly favorable, the study found. 

Trump’s former GOP rivals as well as Democrats have griped for months that the news media played an outsize role in helping Trump secure the nomination. Their objection has been that news outlets disproportionately covered him early in the contest, when candidates seek to gain exposure and establish themselves as viable contenders.

But the problem was not that news media actively favored Trump, wrote the study’s principal author, Thomas E. Patterson, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, who for many years has studied the intersection of the press and politics. Instead, reporters did what they naturally do – look for stories about subjects that are new, different and unexpected. Trump fit that bill precisely and knew how to take advantage.

He “exploited their lust for riveting stories,” Patterson wrote of the news media. “The politics of outrage was his edge, and the press became his dependable, if unwitting, ally.”

The coverage Trump received was about twice the amount devoted to Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who was briefly the GOP front-runner. Two other leading GOP candidates, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, each received slightly less coverage than Bush.

Just in the eight outlets studied, the exposure Trump got during those early months would have cost roughly $55 million in advertising to obtain, the study found – outpacing Bush by just under $20 million. 

Because most of the coverage during those months focused on the campaign itself and presented Trump as gaining in polls, drawing large crowds and exciting his supporters, it was overwhelmingly positive in tone.

Across the eight outlets studied – the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CBS, NBC and Fox News – neutral or positive stories about Trump made up about two-thirds to three-quarters of the total, according to the study, which employed Media Tenor, a company that collects and codes news stories, to analyze the content of the coverage.

The Democratic race had a notably different pattern. Not only was coverage significantly less, but, more notably, stories about Clinton overwhelmingly took a negative tone.

In contrast with every other major candidate, the majority of stories about Clinton were negative in all but one month in 2015. The exception was October – the month in which Vice President Joe Biden announced he would not run for the nomination and Clinton both dominated her first debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and held her own in 11 hours of grilling from a congressional committee investigating the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Fox News stood out for the most consistently negative coverage of the Democratic front-runner, but across the board, each of the eight news sources published more negative than positive or neutral stories about Clinton during the year, the study found.

Part of the reason for the negative tone was that a higher share of stories about Clinton dealt with her record and positions on issues than with the campaign horse race. The record and issue coverage heavily accentuated her problems, the study found. At the same time, the horse race stories tended to focus on her losing ground in polls.

“Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton,” Patterson wrote. “Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end.”

Sanders received relatively little coverage at first, but the volume grew over time, and the overall mix was more positive than for any other candidate, the study found.

The Vermont senator often complained that stories about him mostly focused on the campaign horse race and not on the issues he raised, but that may have helped him, Patterson noted: The horse race stories mostly fit into a narrative of Sanders “gaining ground,” which almost always presents a candidate in a positive light.

David.Lauter@latimes.com

For more on Politics and Policy, follow me @DavidLauter

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UPDATES:

2:08 p.m.: This article was updated with a reference to Trump’s having banned the Washington Post from covering him.

The article was first published at 1:21 p.m.

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