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Network Evening Newscasts Have Abandoned Policy Coverage For 2016 Campaign

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Network Evening Newscasts Have Abandoned Policy Coverage For 2016 Campaign

A combination photo shows U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) and Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) in Los Angeles, California on May 5, 2016 and in Eugene, Oregon, U.S. on May 6, 2016 respectively. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (L) and Jim Urquhart/File Photos

Walking away from a long-standing tradition of covering issues and presidential policies during campaign season, the network evening newscasts have all but abandoned that type of reporting this year, according to recent tabulations from Tyndall Report, which for decades has tracked the flagship nightly news programs.

Since the beginning of 2016, ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News have devoted just 32 minutes to issues coverage, according to Andrew Tyndall.

Differentiating issues coverage from daily campaign coverage where policy topics might be addressed, Tyndall defines issues coverage by a newscast this way: “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.”

And here’s how that kind of in-depth coverage breaks down, year to date, by network:

ABC: 8 minutes, all of which covered terrorism.

NBC: 8 minutes for terrorism, LBGT issues, and foreign policy.

CBS: 16 minutes for foreign policy, terrorism, immigration, policing, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

And this remarkable finding from Tyndall [emphasis added]:

No trade, no healthcare, no climate change, no drugs, no poverty, no guns, no infrastructure, no deficits. To the extent that these issues have been mentioned, it has been on the candidates’ terms, not on the networks’ initiative.

These numbers are staggering in terms of the complete retreat they represent from issues-orientated campaign coverage. Just eight years ago, the last time both parties nominated new candidates for the White House, the network newscasts devoted 220 minutes to issues coverage, compared to only 32 minutes so far this year. (CBS Evening News went from 119 minutes of issues coverage in 2008 to 16 this year.)

Note that during the Republican primary season alone, the networks spent 333 minutes focusing on Donald Trump. Yet for all of 2016, they have set aside just one-tenth of that for issue reporting.

And look at this: Combined, the three network newscasts have slotted 100 minutes so far this year for reporting on Hillary Clinton’s emails while she served as secretary of state, but just 32 minutes for all issues coverage. (NBC’s Nightly News has spent 31 minutes on the emails this year; just eight minutes on issues.)

Indeed, this approach used to be a hallmark of presidential campaign reporting; outline what candidates stand for, describe what their presidency might look like, and compare and contrast that platform with his or her opponents. i.e. What would the new president’s top priorities be on the first day of his or her new administration?

It seems clear that the media’s abandonment of issues coverage benefits Trump since his campaign has done very little to outline the candidate’s core beliefs. Clinton, by contrast, has done the opposite.

As the Associated Press reported, “Trump’s campaign has posted just seven policy proposals on his website, totaling just over 9,000 words. There are 38 on Clinton’s ‘issues’ page, ranging from efforts to cure Alzheimer’s disease to Wall Street and criminal justice reform, and her campaign boasts that it has now released 65 policy fact sheets, totaling 112,735 words.”

Tyndall’s findings echo what other media researchers have found this campaign season, and what commentators have been noting for months:

A study released last month from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy confirmed that during the time of both parties’ conventions this summer, just eight percent of news coverage centered on policy and issues.

“During the convention period, even though questions of policy and leadership were on the agenda within the halls of the national conventions, they were not on journalists’ agenda,” wrote Harvard University professor Thomas Patterson. “Polls, projections, strategy and the like constituted about a fifth of all coverage, whereas issues took up less than 1/12 and the candidates’ qualifications for the presidency accounted for less than 1/13.”

Part of the purpose of campaign coverage, including at the flagship network newscasts, is to help inform voters about key issues of public concern. It’s troubling that the networks have decided this year to walk away from that responsibility.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

Photo: A combination photo shows U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) and Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) in Los Angeles, California on May 5, 2016 and in Eugene, Oregon, U.S. on May 6, 2016 respectively. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (L) and Jim Urquhart/File Photos



  1. Dominick Vila October 27, 2016

    This reminds me of President Carter’s re-election campaign, when his focus on issues and detail were ridiculed, and later blamed for his defeat. The media delivers what the public wants to hear, and the coverage being provided during the 2016 presidential campaign is a reflection of that.

    1. dbtheonly October 27, 2016

      Politics as a reality TV show?

      Plays to Trump’s strengths.

      Completely agree that the Lamestream Media delivers what people want to hear. They are in business to make money, after all.

      Given the prevalence of videos I’m wondering if the Republicans will run a cat in 2020.

      1. Theodora30 October 27, 2016

        I have to disagree. The media delivers what the media wants to hear and they find policy boring. That was why they hated Al Gore who still managed to win the popular vote despite their fawning over the clueless Dubya because he was more fun.

        When Bill Clinton gave a State of the Union address that was focused on policy proposals the media immediately panned it as a boring laundry list. I was shocked that serious journalists like Peter Jennings reacted that way to what I thought was a substantive, interesting speech. When the overnight polls came in it turned out I was not alone. Viewers rated the speech highly.

        The media loves to project their own shallowness on the rest of us.

        1. dbtheonly October 27, 2016

          There’s a real question of causation. Which is the cause and which the effect?

          If serious policy discussions were of great interest to a significant portion of the viewing public; Face the Nation and American Idol would switch time slots.

          1. Theodora30 October 27, 2016

            News will never be as popular as entertainment but there are still a lot of people who are interested. Just look at the ratings for the debates. 60 Minutes has always had good ratings but now it has a Roger Ailes protege, David Rhodes, running their news division. So now we get Benghazi shill Lara Logan instead of unbiased reports.

      2. Sand_Cat October 27, 2016

        [withdrawn; irrelevant]

    2. sigrid28 October 27, 2016

      Agreed. What I cannot understand is the willingness of Clinton campaign operatives to validate ANY stolen material published by Wikileaks whatsoever. Her campaign had the option of refusing to validate part of these dumps unless and until under subpoena, because the entire content was stolen/hacked by a foreign power. The Clinton campaign might have stressed that relentlessly instead of validating some materials and not others. The Clinton campaign could then have followed up by insisting that the hack and Wikileaks’ publication of personal communications constitute an intolerable invasion of privacy to which individuals do not HAVE to submit.

      1. Dominick Vila October 27, 2016

        They should also blame Trump for encouraging the Russians to spy on us, and should call him a traitor.

        1. sigrid28 October 27, 2016

          The closest the campaign came to this was in the third debate, when Clinton pivoted from a question about emails to asking why Trump had not condemned cyber attacks on the U.S. by a foreign power. I must say I did relish the moment when she rejoined that Putin would prefer a Trump presidency over a Clinton one because . . . and somehow she found herself calling Trump Putin’s “puppet.” The Donald didn’t like that. I think it was one of the first things that unhinged him during the debate and may have softened him up for the unforced error of declaring that he could not promise that he would concede if he lost the election.

          1. Dominick Vila October 28, 2016

            What I enjoyed the most of that exchange was Trump’s response: “you are the puppet”. It sounded so childish.

  2. Mama Bear October 27, 2016

    If you look at Neilson ratings over the past year clearly 9 of 10 top watched TV shows were “reality” type shows. This tell us what people want to see. Those of us with a higher level of intelligence don’t watch it. That tells us what most Americans have become.

    1. sigrid28 October 27, 2016

      Being myself a “bear of very little brain,” like Pooh, I would just add that despite these ratings and the taste for reality programming, we are, in fact, at the same time, living in the Golden Age of television that is scripted, with over 450 series now in production spread among a wide array of platforms: network, cable, and streaming. I find it interesting that so many of these are adaptations from books (both fiction and nonfiction), prequels and sequels to popular series, and even reboots, like “McGyver” on CBS. I waded into this world and was surprised to find that AV Club (a website that publishes recaps of popular shows of all types) had to have two comment threads for each episode of “Game of Thrones,” one for “experts” (who knew the books) and one for “newbies” (people who hadn’t set eyes on the books) AND both comment threads each week had more than 2,000 posts on them. While I can’t say that I’m very satisfied with many of these efforts, it the variety promises that scripted television is likely to improve.

  3. yabbed October 27, 2016

    That’s not exactly true. It depends on what your definition of “policy” is. For Trump encouraging the beating up of certain audience members, sexually assaulting hot young women, ridiculing the handicapped, dissing minorities, and threatening to nuke friend and foe alike IS policy.

  4. TiredOfTheHaters October 28, 2016

    It seems the media is only interested in sensationalism than policies.


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