What I learned this semester–3%

Microphones on a table

By Prof. Brian Arbour

One of the joys of teaching in political science is that our ideas, theories, and thoughts about the world are constantly tested against the reality of contemporary politics. This semester, I taught our department’s course on Media & Politics. Doing so forced me to examine recent trends in the news media and, in particular, coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign.

The most striking thing that I learned was that the mainstream news media dedicated a scant 3% of their coverage of the 2016 general election campaign to the issue of experience/leadership.  

This fact comes from a report issued by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Policy and Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. My students read this report as part of our discussion of campaign coverage in the 2016 campaign. The report examined news reports from 5 television news broadcasts (ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, Fox) and 5 newspapers  (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post). Each story was coded by a team of experienced coders at the firm Media Tenor.

That the media gave only 3% of its general election coverage to issues of experience and leadership is but one small factoid. The Shorenstein Center did not feature it as a key element of its report.

Yet, to me, it says so much. One, it is a stunning indictment of media performance in the 2016 campaign. The media focused, as the always do, first on the horserace, with 42% of coverage. 17% of coverage focused on controversies, with only 10% on policy,  and 4% on the personal traits of the candidates. In many ways, these numbers make it look like a normal election held between normal candidates.


But of course,  one of the candidates was not normal. Donald Trump had never served in government or the military–no other president is similarly inexperienced. A candidate could overcome these deficiencies, but Trump certainly has not. He has demonstrated that he lacks a sufficient knowledge of policy, a detailed understanding of the workings of government, or an ideological core to measure ideas against. He is woefully unprepared for the office and has shown little or no inclination to learn any of these basic requirements of the job.

Yet the political media did not find these deficiencies compelling enough to address with anything more than cursory coverage. The media worked under the assumption that Trump was basically like any other party nominee–evidence be damned.

The 3% statistic helps explain another puzzle from the 2016 election. The exit poll run by the major television networks asked voters “Do you think Donald Trump is qualified to serve as President?” Only 38% of voters answered yes. Yet 46% of voters chose Donald Trump to be president. These voters who did not think that Trump was qualified to be president but voted for him anyway made the difference on election day. Without them, Trump would not have won.

How did 10% of voters choose that a candidate’s lack of qualifications was not important enough to disqualify that candidate.  Perhaps they were just following the cues provided to them by the media coverage of the campaign–knowledge and experience are not important for a president.  Let’s pray they are right.

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