Photograph by Ethan Miller Getty Images
By Mathew Ingram
June 14, 2016

There’s been a lot of debate in media industry circles about whether the media helped create the Donald Trump phenomenon by constantly writing about him and putting him on television in an attempt to drive traffic and ratings. Now a new study from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has come up with some fairly compelling ammunition to support this view.

The study was done by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, and it looked at news coverage in mainstream media outlets of the 2016 presidential candidates in the year leading up to the first primaries. The Center’s researchers note that this period is often referred to as “the invisible primary” because it is when candidates lay the groundwork for their campaign, and that early positive media exposure can play a significant role.

“Of all the indicators of success in the invisible primary, media exposure is arguably the most important,” the report says. “Media exposure is essential if a candidate is to rise in the polls. Absent a high poll standing, or upward momentum, it’s difficult for a candidate to raise money, win endorsements, or even secure a spot in the pre-primary debates.”

According to the study, major news outlets—including CBS, Fox News, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, USA Today, and the New York Times—covered Donald Trump’s campaign in “a way that was unusual given his initial polling numbers.” That is to say, the Republican candidate got a high volume of coverage even before his polling numbers justified it. Not only that, but a majority of the coverage was positive in tone, according to the Shorenstein Center research.

When his news coverage began to shoot up, he was not high in the trial-heat polls and had raised almost no money. Upon entering the race, he stood much taller in the news than he stood in the polls. By the end of the invisible primary, he was high enough in the polls to get the coverage expected of a frontrunner. But he was lifted to that height by an unprecedented amount of free media.

Meanwhile, the Democratic race got less than half the coverage that the Republican race did, the researchers found. Later on, Bernie Sanders started to get a lot of interest and much of it was positive, but Hillary Clinton had the most negative coverage of any candidate for either party, the Center’s report says. In 11 out of the 12 months that were studied, the amount of negative news outpaced the positive news, “usually by a wide margin.”

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The Shorenstein Center report says that its analysis shows Donald Trump got the equivalent of about $55 million in free advertising space from the eight major media outlets it studied—and about $16 million worth of that came from the New York Times alone. That number “was more than [Trump] spent on actual ad buys in all media during all of 2015,” the study notes, and the candidate’s total advertising value was 1.5 times what Bush, Rubio and Cruz got.

The study says that media insiders typically respond to criticism of their Trump coverage by saying they were largely critical of him, and that most of the fuel for his campaign came from cable TV networks that covered him slavishly and uncritically. The Shorenstein Center, however, says that “neither of these claims is supported by the evidence.” It blames most of the positive coverage on the tendency to cover political campaigns like a horse race, rather than focusing on the issues.

The report also notes that Trump’s personality and his eagerness to provide the media with sound-bites, in many cases on Twitter and other social media, fed into this pattern. “Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational—the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention,” the study says. The result is that “Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee. Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch.”

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