There's been a complete transformation in how the campaign press covers elections in the last decade, and it's a defining change that's benefiting Republicans, and specifically Donald Trump. The change is in the way the press has dramatically curtailed its coverage of policy and of what candidate agendas look like.
Coverage of policy proposals used to be a hallmark of presidential campaign reporting, with journalists outlining what candidates stood for, describing what their presidencies might look like, and comparing and contrasting their platforms with those of their opponents. What would the new president’s top priorities be on the first day of his or her new administration? Policy now takes a backseat to scandals and viral moments from the trail.
“This tendency, in turn, allows important issues such as health care, climate change and reproductive rights to fall off the agenda every time a Trump-driven media cycle emerges from some new outrage or a flavor-of-the-day controversy pops up,” according to new research from Northeastern University's School of Journalism. Students in the school's Storybench program recently analyzed 10,000 news articles on the 2020 Democratic candidates published between March and October of this year by a diverse range of 28 news outlets. The study indicates that coverage of the candidates’ positions on immigration and health care flared up during the televised debates, but then quickly subsided once that moment passed. In other words, substantive issues basically disappear when yet another Trump controversy erupts.
“For several generations now, most media coverage of presidential politics has consisted of pack journalism focused on polls and the controversies of the day,” the researchers write. “Given the press’ disastrous performance in the 2016 campaign, one might have hoped that it would be different this time around. So far, though, it’s been business as usual, which our analysis helps confirm.”
Indeed, we've seen this disappointing act before.