32 Minutes: Did broadcast news do its duty in the 2016 US Presidential Election?

If you felt that media coverage of the recent US Presidential Election appeared to lack focus on policy issues, you may well be correct.

Andrew Tyndall, a media analyst based in the US, monitors American broadcast news media at his website the Tyndall Report. His main focus is the ‘big three’ American nightly news broadcasts: ABC World News TonightCBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News. Given their huge share of the audience and the generally high esteem and trust placed upon their presenters by the public (think Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite), the influence of these broadcasts should not be underestimated.

Issues coverage

With this in mind, it might be considered very strange that according to Tyndall’s research, these news shows spent a combined aggregate of 32 minutes of airtime on ‘issues coverage’ during the year 2016 up until 25 October (two weeks before Election Day, and after many ballots had already been cast in states with early voting). Tyndall defines ‘issues coverage’ as follows:

‘Issues coverage is differentiated from candidate coverage thus: it takes a public policy, outlines the societal problem that needs to be addressed, describes the candidates’ platform positions and proposed solutions, and evaluates their efficacy.’

The importance of this type of coverage, then, should seem self-evident. The only alternative means by which policy matters are likely to be highlighted is on the candidates’ own terms, where they can be presented context-free and largely unchallenged as a manifesto pitch. A policy that can be sold to the electorate without this sort of critical engagement provides little in the way of indication of how it might perform in the ‘real world’.

Saturation

Given the absolute saturation of all media with coverage of the election, one might be tempted to ask: well, if issues only got 32 minutes of airtime, what the hell else were they discussing?

First of all, there was a huge focus on the personalities of the candidates, rather than their policies. This isn’t a new phenomenon in American electoral politics, where both media and campaigners often see personality as a more important factor than even the voters do (see King, 2002, amongst others, for a discussion of this). However, this election may be notable for how the candidates themselves were at least complicit, and perhaps even actively participant, in skewing this coverage. The Clinton campaign was explicit in its wish to make this election a referendum on Donald Trump, and Trump has never shied away from being the centre of attention. Moreover, even in very direct settings, neither campaign seemed particularly interested in discussing policy; for example, one commentator at Forbes estimated that the final 90-minute televised debate between the candidates featured approximately one minute of discussion on policy, in a space where the candidates could largely dictate the focus of the debate.

Secondly, the media’s obsession with polls continued unabated. This addiction to so-called ‘horse-race’ coverage is highly prevalent and nothing new (despite the serious concerns raised about the impact that this has on voter decision-making). When operating in an environment that stretches voters’ cognitive capacity and where there is significant competition for attention, the choices about what should receive coverage actually matter – and the US media chose to prioritise polling coverage above policy.

A dereliction of duty?

It seems fair to ask if the media’s decision to prioritise personalities and polling above policy matters represents some sort of failure or dereliction of duty on their part. Of course, media is responsive to audience desires; further, in Andrew Tyndall’s analysis, he comments that the candidates’ determination to make this election about personality rather than policy meant that the media would actually be misrepresenting the race if they attempted to bring in more issues coverage.

I’m not sure how far I can agree with letting media off the hook here, though. If anything, it seems intuitive that if the candidates desperately do not wish to discuss policy, then the media should pursue that relentlessly. Otherwise, they are presenting a gift on a silver platter to any candidate who is weak on policy matters. Furthermore, a failure to prioritise the policy discussion will ultimately leave very important policy areas untouched altogether. Tyndall’s analysis suggests that of the 32 minutes of issues coverage, foreign policy and terrorism received a combined 24 minutes. That leaves eight minutes in total to discuss, inter alia, taxation, immigration, the environment, LGBT rights, healthcare, social security…

News media, amongst other observers of politics, will doubtless undergo a period of soul-searching as it grapples with the unpredicted and shocking electoral outcomes of 2016, particularly the result of the US presidential election. It should probably start by acknowledging that it spent significantly less time discussing policy issues than in even the election with the next lowest amount of policy coverage (Clinton vs Dole in 1996, if you’re wondering). If the media chooses to address this issue, perhaps it will push back against this trend of post-truth politics; if not, then it will merely enable it.

This post is partly based on another article by the same author, previously published on LinkedIn.

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