2016 election: Who Is the Media Covering, and Not Covering?

January 24, 2016

Students learn about how much coverage the media are providing to different presidential candidates and discuss why coverage of the candidates varies so widely.  


To get the discussion started, give students a quick quiz.  

Note that Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders have approximately the same level of support, according to recent national polls--about 37 percent each.

Question 1:  Which candidate has received more coverage in the media?

a) Donald Trump
b) Bernie Sanders
c) Neither. The coverage has been about equal.

Answer: Donald Trump has received more coverage.

Question 2: How much more time did news networks devote to Trump versus Sanders in 2015, according to a study by the progressive media group Media Matters for America?

a) .8%
b) 20%
c) 100%
d) 1600%

Answer:  d). Trump received 1600% more coverage than Sanders. 

As of December 1, 2016:

  • Trump received 327 minutes of coverage
  • Hillary Clinton: 113 minutes
  • Jeb Bush: 56 minutes
  • Vice President Joe Biden (who considered running): 56 minutes
  • Ben Carson: 54 minutes
  • Marco Rubio: 22 minutes
  • Bernie Sanders: 20 minutes


Ask students the following questions, and record their responses on the board:

  • Why do you think major media outlets devoted so much more time to reporting on Trump compared with the other candidates, including both Sanders and Clinton? 
  • Donald Trump leads the Republican race and has run an unorthodox campaign. He makes comments that are surprising, provocative, and also offensive to many people. People are interested in what he does and says. Does that explain the high level of media coverage for Trump? Should this be a reason for extensive media coverage?

Jeff Weaver, campaign manager for Bernie Sanders, made this comment about the lack of Sanders coverage:

The corporately-owned media may not like Bernie’s anti-establishment views, but for the sake of American democracy they must allow for a fair debate in this presidential campaign.  Bernie must receive the same level of coverage on the nightly news as other leading candidates.

Ask students:

  • What does Weaver means when he describes Sanders’ views as "anti-establishment"? 

Elicit or explain that Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist. The word "socialist" has often been used by conservatives to condemn and marginalize politicians they view as too left-wing (including President Obama).  Some of Sanders’ policy proposals have been rare in national political discussion:  free tuition at public colleges, single-payer health insurance, raising taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans, taxing Wall Street transactions, raising the minimum wage to $15, and requiring employers to provide paid medical leave.

Ask students:

  • Have you heard about these proposals?  If you haven’t, why do you think that is?
  • Do you agree with Weaver that Sanders should get the same level of coverage as other candidates?  Why or why not?

In most cases, media coverage of the candidates correlates with their popularity by at least one measure: Google searches. DecisionData.org crunched the numbers on searches over time for each candidate and compared those numbers with media coverage over the same time period.  They found that in general, media coverage of a candidate and Google searches about that candidate spiked at the same time.

However, they also found that sometimes Google searches on a candidate did not correlate with that candidate’s level of media coverage. 

For example, Marco Rubio was 36% more popular (as measured by the number of Google searches) than Rand Paul.  But Rubio received 403% more mentions in the media - meaning that Rand Paul got disproportionately little media coverage.

According to DecisionData, Bernie Sanders had many Google searches, yet little coverage.  If media coverage reflected the level of interest in Sanders on Google, he would have received over 60,000 more mentions in the media.

Ask students:

  • Is counting Google hits a good way to measure interest in a candidate (or anything else)? Why or why not? Is there a better way?
  • Should the media focus more attention on candidates who are doing well in the polls and who are getting lots of Google searches? Why or why not?
  • Given that many people get their information from the internet, is it irrelevant if traditional  news sources, such as network news programs, are biased against certain candidates? How do you (and the voting members of your family) get information about candidates?
  • Do the media have a responsibility or obligation to cover elections in any particular way -- fair, balanced, informative, in sync with its readership, in sync with its advertisers, etc.?


For further exploration

Ask students to seek out media coverage of the election for the next few days. Ask them to note, for each story:

  • What is the source? What type of media is it? 
  • Which candidate or candidates is the media story focusing on?
  • Which candidates are not mentioned?
  • What is the focus of the coverage?

When the class reconvenes, ask students to share some of their findings. Discuss:

  • Which candidates seem to be getting the most coverage? Which get the least?
  • What was the focus of coverage?
  • Which media sources (if any) do you think are making good choices about which candidates to cover? Which are not? Why?
  • How much of the coverage helps us as citizens make better decisions about which candidates to support?