Mainstream Media and Its Influence on the Presidential Elections

Media outlets remind us daily that the U.S. is currently amidst a contentious battle to elect the next American President. While news reports on elections have been abundant, mainstream coverage received by each candidate has not been equivalent. Donald Trump has dominated headlines since his candidacy announcement in June 2015. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has drawn-in at a far second, albeit still garnering mentions more than 1.5 times than that of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. As of June 2016, Google-supported compiled research by the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) Project reports that national television networks have mentioned Trump 652,814 times, Clinton 266,034 times, and Sanders 161,875 times since June 2015. That is, national television networks have mentioned Trump 2.5 times more than Clinton and over 4 times more than Sanders­. Compare these numbers to 2008, the last election for a first-term presidency. According to a February 2008 New York Times article, Republican frontrunner John McCain received 37% of the total election coverage, while Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton received 34% and 32%, respectively. Coverage per candidate in 2008 was more or less equal. In stark contrast, press watchdog Media Matters for America found in December 2015 that Trump had received 234 minutes of campaign television coverage nationally, while Sanders had received a total of 10 minutes. But do these numbers translate into influence? Simply put, the answer is yes.

Voters will cast their ballots for those candidates to whom they have been exposed and for those who they feel carry views that align with their own. Mainstream media also serves as an important forum for candidates to reach those who share their ideals. Nonetheless, it appears some major news outlets have a different agenda. As recently as May 2016, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves divulged that Trump news coverage has been lucrative, stating, “[Donald Trump] may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. . . . [T]he money’s rolling in . . . .” While profitability may have its benefits, many are starting to believe that the disproportional amount of airtime designated to Trump coverage has only galvanized his campaign and increasing popularity. The New York Times, which publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton in January 2016, came under fire after its readers accused the paper of repeatedly editing headlines on Sanders’ victories to tweak the tone to instead cast an unfavorable light on the Senator. The changes prompted New York Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan, as well as former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, to cry foul and side with angry readers.

To make matters worse, the FCC in 2014 rendered essentially meaningless the longstanding Zapple Doctrine found under the 1934 Communications Act. The Zapple Doctrine required that broadcasting stations providing airtime to one candidate running for political office must grant all opposing declared candidates equal time at their behest. In 2014, the FCC nevertheless held that to enforce the Zapple Doctrine would be to exercise censorship over programming content of broadcasting stations, ostensibly a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech.

Knowledge and awareness are pivotal to the electoral process. Without proportional and fair coverage of each of the presidential hopefuls, voters who rely on mainstream media are not exposed to the full spectrum of their choices. While the existence of the Internet certainly is a valuable campaigning tool, online activism often fails to actualize into voter turnouts and ballots cast. Selective coverage stymies fair political discourse and the democratic process. The next President of the United States of America should be a reflection of the voters’ voices. Responsible reporting by mainstream media is critical to achieving that outcome.

The data points provided below reveal that the age groups with the highest voter turnout rely on mainstream media sources, specifically cable TV news, news websites/apps, and network nightly news.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, Americans by age group used the following sources to learn about the 2016 presidential election:

18-29 years old 30-49 years old 50-64 years old 65+ years old
Social media 35% Cable TV news 21% Cable TV news 25% Cable TV news 43%
News website/app 18% News website/app 19% Local TV 19% Network nightly news 17%
Cable TV news 12% Social media 15% Network nightly news 14% Local TV 10%
Radio 11% Local TV 14% Radio 13% Local paper in print 6%
Local TV 10% Radio 13% News website/app 10% News website/app 5%
Late night comedy 6% Network nightly news 7% Local paper in print 5% Radio 5%
Network nightly news 4% Late night comedy 4% Social media 5% National paper in print 5%
Issue-based group 2% Local paper in print 2% Late night comedy 2% Issue-based group 2%

The U.S. Census Bureau study shows that the 18-29 year olds historically have the lowest voter turnout while those who are 45-64 years old have the highest among the age groups. Below is the voter turnout by age group for the 2012 presidential election:

65+ years old 22%
45-64 years old 39%
30-44 years old 23%
18-29 years old 15%

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