New Study: Bias in Real News, Not Fake News, Was Key Factor in Hillary’s Loss

December 9th, 2017 7:04 AM

News stories might have cost Hillary Clinton the presidency -- real stories from Manhattan, not fake stories from Macedonia. That’s the major takeaway from a new content analysis of media coverage of the 2016 campaign that the Columbia Journalism Review published on Tuesday. They still believe journalists were too hard on Hillary and didn't spend enough time explaining why liberal policies (especially Obamacare) were the obvious choice for voters.

Study authors Duncan Watts and David Rothschild, both of Microsoft Research, acknowledged that fake news “deserve[s] serious attention,” but argued that it had minimal effect on the vote, and that dwelling on it “diverts attention” from the MSM’s shortcomings, which mattered greatly given that “the overall volume of stories produced by major newsrooms vastly outnumbers fake news.”

First, they noted the study from Harvard's Berkman Klein Center that claimed they found "roughly four times as many Clinton-related sentences that described scandals as opposed to policies, whereas Trump-related sentences were one-and-a-half times as likely to be about policy as scandal. "

…These 65,000 sentences were written not by Russian hackers, but overwhelmingly by professional journalists employed at mainstream news organizations, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. To the extent that voters mistrusted Hillary Clinton, or considered her conduct as secretary of state to have been negligent or even potentially criminal, or were generally unaware of what her policies contained or how they may have differed from Donald Trump’s, these numbers suggest their views were influenced more by mainstream news sources than by fake news.

Watts and Rothschild then gave special scrutiny to campaign coverage in the New York Times. In their judgment, the paper was largely asleep at the switch regarding substantive matters, while much of its news about Hillary wasn’t fit to print (italics in original):

There were profound differences between the two candidates’ policies, and these differences are already proving enormously consequential to the American people…In light of the stark policy choices facing voters in the 2016 election, it seems incredible that only five out of 150 front-page articles that The New York Times ran over the last, most critical months of the election, attempted to compare the candidate’s policies, while only 10 described the policies of either candidate in any detail.

In this context, 10 is an interesting figure because it is also the number of front-page stories the Times ran on the Hillary Clinton email scandal in just six days, from October 29 (the day after FBI Director James Comey announced his decision to reopen his investigation of possible wrongdoing by Clinton) through November 3, just five days before the election. When compared with the Times’s overall coverage of the campaign, the intensity of focus on this one issue is extraordinary.

To reiterate, in just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election (and that does not include the three additional articles on October 18, and November 6 and 7, or the two articles on the emails taken from John Podesta). This intense focus on the email scandal cannot be written off as inconsequential: The Comey incident and its subsequent impact on Clinton’s approval rating among undecided voters could very well have tipped the election.

The authors called the Times’s coverage “typical of a broader failure of mainstream journalism to inform audiences of the very real and consequential issues at stake” and "In retrospect, it seems clear that the press in general made the mistake of assuming a Clinton victory was inevitable, and were setting themselves as credible critics of the next administration."

They concluded, “We believe that fixing the information ecosystem is at least as much about improving the real news as it about stopping the fake stuff.” In other words, the media's "information ecosystem" wasn't "explanatory" enough to give Hillary the win.